A version of this article was first written for the Synthesis retreat. I have re-worked it to remove the advertising – now, this is a brief overview of the way that plant medicines are viewed in the indigenous cultures that are still intertwined with them.
The growing awareness of the medicinal benefits of psychedelics in the West has been dubbed the “psychedelic renaissance.” Unlike the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, this psychedelic emergence is fuelled by contemporary science and the potential for psychedelics to treat the rising tide of mental health conditions in our societies.
But psychedelics have been familiar to humanity for much longer than the past few decades. Plant medicines have been a part of some cultures since their beginnings.
So is our view of the benefits of psychedelics somewhat narrow? What lessons can we learn from studying the history and culture of psychedelic use outside of our immediate awareness?
This is a modified excerpt from an article I co-wrote for Synthesis, the full version of which you can find here.
Mystical experiences have been the cornerstone of religious and spiritual practices for millennia. From early Christian mysticism to Zen Buddhism, almost every religious path allows space for experiences that give a more direct connection to the more mysterious aspects of reality.
Broadly speaking, a mystical experience is anything that is hard to comprehend or describe with rational or simple language. Generally, it is short-lasting, feels immensely meaningful or profound, and shatters some of your preconceptions. You may encounter paradoxical or alien concepts firsthand, such as non-duality; a realization that nothing in the universe is truly separate, or impermanence; an awareness that pretty much everything is temporary.
“See, Pat, the thing about me – I have a very masculine energy. I like building and creating. I’m good at opening doors but not so good at closing them after me.”
“So, I have a very feminine energy, Pat. I like organising, tidying, putting things in order.”
These were statements spoken to me a few days apart, both by colleagues who also work in the psychedelic community, and both times it surprised me.
I would not have expected these people to use gendered terms to describe their personalities, because it felt so thoroughly unnecessary. And it made me start thinking about why they had decided to use the terms masculine and feminine to describe their personality traits. It was one of a string of events that made me start to seriously reflect on the prevalence of gendered concepts in the psychedelic space.
It’s been over fifty years since Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert wrote “The Psychedelic Experience.” It was intended to be a psychedelic manual for the first generation of Western mind-explorers; people who desperately lacked a cultural background for their psychedelic journeys.
Unsurprisingly, this half-century old book has lost some of its applicability in modern psychedelic culture.
Stepping into the void is occultist and academic Julian Vayne, who has just released “Getting Higher” – a manual of psychedelic ceremony for the modern psychonaut. Here’s my review of this hallucinogenic handbook.
This one’s a little off-topic… technically it’s nothing to do with psychedelics.
You might have heard of kratom recently; it’s been in the news quite a bit, since the DEA announced in August that they wanted to make it illegal, before they fairly quickly withdrew their plans in the face of a loud public backlash. After all, thousands of Americans have been using kratom to combat prescription drug addiction or alcoholism – getting rid of kratom could cause huge damage to people’s lives.
Kratom is a plant that grows almost everywhere in SouthEast Asia. Its leaves are traditionally chewed for their sedative and painkilling properties. In the West, it’s often found in dried form, and brewed into a tea or swallowed in capsules. Kratom contains a bunch of alkaloids that have a relaxing and soothing effect. It’s like a plant-based alcohol – except, it hasn’t been directly linked to seven forms of cancer, like alcohol has.
Compassion is not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of economics or the stock market. Modern economics is more often a negative force than a positive one. Debt, bribery, greed and corruption are always associated with money – values like love and empathy… not so much.
Does this make money automatically a bad thing? Maybe money is just a necessary evil, maybe economics is the crumbling foundation on which we must build our extravagant society.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. What if we could create a form of economics that didn’t create debt, but negated it? What if we lived in a world with a compassionate currency that rewarded good deeds rather than greed?
Psychedelics can treat depression. They can treat anxiety, they can help you quit smoking, they can help recovering alcoholics and they can treat cluster headaches.
But these classic psychedelics, LSD and psilocybin, can also have a nasty bite. ‘Bad trips’ have been publicised since the psychedelic culture of the 60s, including (often fabricated) tales of people jumping off buildings or staring at the sun until blind. But it’s a reality that powerful psychedelic drugs can cause traumatic experiences if not used correctly.
In the most recent edition of the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Professor David Nutt introduces two new studies that add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that psilocybin can be used to help people with anxiety or depression related to terminal illness. It’s all exciting stuff, is already being covered by major news outlets, and will no doubt help to further the cause of the psychedelic reform movement.
Psilocybin is helping people with terminal illnesses accept death
Included in the issue is a paper about ‘challenging experiences’ people encounter when using psilocybin outside of a clinical setting. It’s an interesting contrast to the unrestrained positive message we’ve been hearing about psilocybin in recent studies. Here, the authors point out that of nearly 2000 recorded ‘bad trips’, around 50 resulted in physical violence or hospitalisation. 152 of those surveyed felt they needed treatment for the long-term psychological effects of the experience, and three people attempted suicide.
Swirling colours, delirious patterns, groovy rhythms and otherworldly vistas. These are some of the first things that come to mind when we think about psychedelics. The unique fashion and culture of the 1960s was influenced by the popularity of psychedelic drugs like no other time in our history; the colours, patterns and hair-dos of that time stand out like a carnival in our recent timeline.
Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles… the list of bands influenced by psychedelics could go on and on. Aldous Huxley’s works, still hugely influential to this day, are clearly inspired by his experiences with mescaline and LSD. Steve Jobs took LSD in college, and called it “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life”. The inventor of PCR, a breakthrough biomolecular technique that has revolutionised medical research, said that LSD gave him the intuition that allowed him to make the ground-breaking discovery. Artists and architects, authors and entrepreneurs have been finding inspiration in LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and DMT for decades.
Strobe lights, dense fog, thumping beats, crowded dance floor… and a whole lot of MDMA. It’s a typical clubbing experience.
Clubs devoted to the class-A drug ecstasy aren’t exactly a new concept. They’ve been around for decades. But this was my first encounter. Everyone was clearly there to get high; the dancers knew it, the DJ knew it, the bouncers knew it.
In some ways it was a bizarre experience. And it was a microcosm of our nonsensical drug laws.
Ecstasy has been illegal since 1985, but it is a relatively harmless drug. There are risks associated with taking large amounts, taking it frequently or mixing it with other drugs, but compared to alcohol or tobacco these risks are low. Former head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt, was fired for (truthfully) saying that taking ecstasy is less dangerous than horse riding.
“I felt my stomach drop upon the realization that all of my friends and family had always been simply creations of my own disturbed mentality, but even more so that I would be alone for all of eternity with only my thoughts to accompany me.”
“I feel parts of me go numb. I feel my heart start to give out but I pull it back to life. I am fighting to survive at this point, I have forgotten that I took a drug, I am alone in an eternal hell.”
“I became very restless because my mind was so incoherent. I wandered from bed to bed in the room, lying down and crawling into a foetal position in some attempt to make it stop. The trip was making every moment of existence complete and utter hell. I wanted to stop existing immediately in order to make it stop.”
These are all excerpts from various trip reports collected on the drug information website Erowid.org. They’re just a few of countless examples of people who have experienced the nasty side of psychedelics.
Psychedelics are extremely powerful drugs. Despite their enormous medical and spiritual potential (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface in this blog), they have the power to do harm when used irresponsibly.