I Was a Teenage Psychonaut

“The Tao is nameless

like uncarved wood

 

As soon as it is carved

there are names

 

carve carefully

Along the grain”   

– Timothy Leary, Psychedelic Prayers

 

It would surprise most of my newer friends to learn that in my youth I was an enthusiastic supporter of what is today known as plant medicine, although in my circles back then we preferred the more neutral term psychedelics. Indeed, my bookshelves still groan under the weight of the requisite texts by Leary, McKenna, Grof, Shulgin and co. and the tattooed imprint of various illicit molecules still weaves its way up my left arm.

 

Psychedelics captured my imagination in the early to mid ‘90s and I spent a good number of years proselytising and exploring the outer limits of consciousness with my small family of fellow underground travellers, drifting from festival to festival and working our way through the many pages of Peter Stafford’s seminal Psychedelics Encyclopaedia, all the while figuring out where to situate ourselves in the long and broad arc of the psychedelic counterculture and its myriad histories.

 

While I travel less often these days, I still feel deeply connected to the psychedelic community and remain an advocate, albeit a more cautious one than I was in my heady teens and twenties, for the benefits these substances hold for treating so many of the physiological, psychological, spiritual and soclal ills of our times. The resurgence of careful research into psychedelic treatment paradigms over the past decade or so fills me with hope and I keenly follow the work of MAPS, The Heffter Institute, Beckley Foundation and other organisations intent on bringing the healing potential of entheogens to the mainstream. At the same time, however, several aspects of what could loosely be termed the second psychedelic revival trouble me, some of them bound up in the term plant medicine itself.

 

Whereas research Humphrey Osmond’s original hybrid Greek neologism, psyche delos, simply means mind manifesting, the term plant medicine contains both an embedded value judgement that these substances are inherently good and a subtler but equally value-laden appeal to nature. Indeed, appeals to nature or precedent are common in the contemporary plant medicine community. Usually these take the form of positing mythic origins for psychedelic compounds, situating them at – or even, in Mckenna’s stoned ape theory, as responsible for – the dawning of reflective consciousness itself, and as woven through the entire history of human culture, from the Palaeolithic to the Anthropocene.

 

While there is some fairly strong evidence to support the use of some psychoactive compounds as far back as several thousand years ago, the mythic origins narrative tends to take on a justificatory tone whereby, as Andy Letcher points out in his exceptional study of our historical interactions with psychoactive mushrooms, Shroom, the use of a substance is argued to be legitimate precisely because of its long history of application. The problem here, beyond the evidence being seriously overstated in many instances, is that this approach is inherently conservative, often forming part of a broader Garden of Eden narrative where the old ways are good because they are old and the new ways are bad because we have lost our way. One only has to take a quick glance at the history of human civilization, however, to recognise that there’s nothing inherently good about the ‘old ways’ and that it is often precisely via an enthusiasm for the new and unknown that societies have gained beneficial knowledge and abilities, even if our reach still often exceeds our grasp and even though there is still much of value to be found in the past.

 

More troubling is the way in which ‘old way’ narratives are used to describe the practices of so-called ‘ancient cultures’ in anthropologically naive ways that essentialise indigenous people and trivialise the sophisticated techniques with which they navigate the contemporary world. Framing indigenous Peruvian ayahuasca-using communities as ‘noble’, ‘enlightened’ or ‘in tune with the patterns of the Earth’ is certainly an improvement on colonial-era views of the Other as backwards and in need of European culture, but while all cultures have knowledge to share, the effect of such framing is often simply a displacement of what Marx described as our alienation from ourselves, each other, our creative capacities and the natural world. Seeking a remedy for this alienation in exoticism and the ill-understood cultural practices of indigenous people elides its direct cause in capitalist social relations that affect all of us, regardless of cultural origin. And, as Jamaica Kincaid reminded us in A Small Place, her profound reflection on exoticism and consumerism, we’re all in this together – once people are no longer oppressed, and once they are no longer noble and exalted masters who have overcome their oppression, they are just humans beings and all that adds up to.

 

Capitalism has emerged in quite ugly ways within the plant medicine community too. Access to these exploratory tools has become increasingly commodified in recent years – by New Age entrepreneurs who have seen a new gap in the ‘money energy’ market, by investment capitalists who want to patent psychedelic cures and by ‘traditional healers’ charging ayahuasca tourists vast sums of money for often-times dangerous and dubiously-facilitated sessions in the Amazon (although there are of course also many legitimate healers and one can to some extent appreciate the hustle of impoverished Peruvians selling plastic containers of ‘magical brew’ to rich Westerners so they can buy smart shoes and new cellphones).

 

This commodification is to a large extent at odds with the broadly anti-capitalist ethos of the psychedelic counterculture of the ‘60s, which, as several commentators have recently pointed out, was much more interwoven with the anti-war, civil rights and new Left movements of that same period than is commonly assumed. It has also resulted in a kind of cultural elitism whereby forms of access that are deemed culturally legitimate are increasingly limited to a relatively wealthy, mostly white demographic: think Burning Man, Silicon Valley and Barbrook’s Californian Ideology. In turn, the more lucrative provision of access becomes, the more opportunistic white shamans – sociopaths and sexual predators not uncommon among them – step in to fill the gap with staggeringly expensive San Pedro, psilocybin and ayahuasca sessions facilitated without any relevant psychological training and exposing participants to serious risks. One only needs to observe the penchant for dubious conspiracy theorising among said ‘shamans’ to know that they are not learning the core lessons of critical thinking from their plant medicine.

 

On this last point, associating critical thinking with psychedelics usage may sound strange to contemporary ears more used to hearing these practices described with terms like ‘self-growth’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘Truth’ and ‘spiritual healing’, but this simply reflects the shift towards essentialism and shallow New Ageism that has come to define a large part of the plant medicine community in the third decade of the 21st century. While this discourse indirectly emerged from the cultural rupture that was the ‘60s, mostly via notable projects like the Esalen Institute, Findhorn and so on (although we should keep in mind that the ‘self-help’ movement is also a reflection of the default narcissistic mode of subjectivity wrought by neoliberalism), the most prominent voices of that period – Leary, Alpert, Metzner, Watts and various other white middle-aged male academics and professionals –  promoted psychedelics as a tool for theoretical and practical research and the development of epistemological reflexivity just as often as they spoke of its potential for spiritual development or as a psychotherapeutic adjunct. Reading John Lilly’s seminal work in the philosophy of consciousness expansion Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, for instance, or even some of Terence McKenna’s less bardic musings from the ‘80s and ‘90s, one is struck by the enthusiasm for scientific fields like complex systems theory, particle physics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, and how much more nuanced they are than the lazily appropriated Western Buddhist platitudes that pass for a worldview in some plant medicine circles.

 

Of course, this is not the whole story. Apart from the selfless and hugely beneficial work undertaken by some more credible members of the plant healing community, careful scientific work by contemporary researchers, much of it far more rigorous than the patchy treasure trove of first generation psychedelics research papers published between 1940 and 1970, forms a prominent part of today’s psychedelics community, and the underlying drive to achieve mainstream legitimation of these compounds as beneficial psychological and spiritual tools is commendable. However, and while I openly admit that I waver between optimism and cynicism when it comes to the MAPS approach, to the extent that this legitimation unfolds within the ambit of market forces it risks an easy recuperation into the smooth functioning of capitalism and a tacit condoning of its norms. Some may argue that psychedelic mainstreaming will function like a trojan horse but, to mix metaphors, I see it as more of a double-edged sword. There is nothing about these substances that will automatically fix dominant social relations or the damage these cause to the people subjected to them – plenty of toxic, bigoted, small-minded people have taken astonishing amounts of psychedelics – and while significant healing may result, medicalising usage, ostensibly through highly restrictive scheduling, will keep culturally sanctioned usage out of the reach of most people while further condemning and removing support for ‘unsanctioned’ usage.

 

Although my years as a teenage psychonaut were reckless and wildly naive in many ways, my friends and I always remained cognisant of Leary’s golden rule of set and setting as we shared out the blotter. Too often, nowadays, these crucial factors are reduced to a bit of meditation, a cushion, some culturally appropriative decor and a Hearts of Space soundtrack. The world too, however, as systems thinkers like Gregory Bateson and R.D. Laing reminded us, has its sets and settings and maybe, just maybe, the open set of possibilities represented by these impossibly complex substances – the profound potential they hold to change each of us and all of our broader communities – will only really come into view once we start simultaneously attending to the dominant sets of ideology and the dominant settings of capital and hegemony.

 

Or, as Leary once observed, while psychedelics allow you to see the ‘game’, the real trick is not to pretend to exist outside of it (after all, there is also a game called ‘seeing the game’ and a game called ‘I’m not playing the game’) but to be both inside and outside it at the same time – playing keenly and with every fibre of our being, for all the stakes of life and love and revolution. Without, of course, forgetting to play.

 

“Take an apple and slice it down the middle. 

A thin red circle surrounds 

 

the gleaming white meat. 

In the center is a dark seed 

whose function is beyond any of your games. 

If you knew how to listen 

the seed would hum you a seed-song.”

– Timothy Leary, Psychedelic Prayers

Contributor: Aragorn Eloff

Aragorn Eloff is a long time-time anarchist with a keen interest in different forms of grassroots struggle, ecological activism and animal liberation.

He is also an independent researcher working at the intersection of radical politics and continental philosophy, with a focus on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

He currently works for New Frame, a progressive media non-profit, as a technology manager and occasional writer, and is the co-convener of the biannual South African Deleuze and Guattari Studies Conference. When he is not reading, writing or arguing with strangers on the internet, Aragorn can be found running long distances through natural landscapes.

The divinity of the ordinary

Since my second Ayahuasca ceremony, it’s as if a light switch has gone off inside of me. Through months of integration, I was surprised to find that a big part of this emanating light was teaching me how to love or to remember my love for the ordinary.

For practically my whole life I have been running after experiences: skinny dipping, getting tipsy at wine farms with friends, eating at strange restaurants, traveling around the country, going to festivals and just about anything you could probably find on some sort of cliche bucket list.

When I reached my early twenties I decided that now is the time to travel the world but, no matter how hard I tried, it seemed that something was always getting in the way. Through my introduction to the ordinary, I realized that this ‘something’, although seemingly on the outside, was my attachment to the idea of travel. Through my constant seeking out of crazy experience after crazy experience I began to conjure up some sort of belief that if I wasn’t consistently filling my life up with experiences that would make your grandma blush, I would always regret it and feel unfulfilled.

What I didn’t realize was that by trying to turn my life into a real-life reenactment of a Getaway magazine I was missing out on the cool breeze when it touched my face or the feeling of wet grass on my feet. I was forgetting about the satisfying soreness in my stomach that I get when I laugh so hard I can hardly breathe or the way my warm bed feels around me as I drift into sleep. I was forgetting the divinity of the ordinary.

This doesn’t mean that I have given up on my dream to travel the world. Desire itself can be a portal into the divine. It’s the attachment to desire that not only blocks its heavenly  nature, but that prevents the true enjoyment that we originally found in it, from coming through.

Nothing, and I really mean nothing, will ever make us one hundred percent happy- at least not in the long term. Happiness itself is a very addictive drug that has us tiring ourselves out constantly in pursuit of whatsoever we think will give it to us-houses, cars, relationships, travel, enlightenment, little puppies that you can cuddle (okay so maybe puppies can give you eternal happiness. I was wrong.)

“Joy comes in ordinary moments. We risk missing out when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary.”-Brene Brown

My point is as long as you are always running after some novel idea of what you think your life should look like, you’re going to be missing out on the fact that ‘Spirit’, ‘God’ or whatsoever word you want to use, is right here, right now. If you don’t recognize the divinity within the ordinary, you’ll never truly reach the extraordinary.

 

A mothers love. A mothers pain.

I was inspired to write this due to the ongoing events at Standing Rock. I find it hard to get behind many movements due to the complex and in many cases subjectively inspired points of view, but this one has been met with a deeply intuitive ‘yes’ from the depths of my soul and reminded me how much our mother loves and suffers for us.

About a year ago I decided to take some magic mushrooms at a festival. I do generally tend to use psychedelics for growth but that night I was just looking to kick back and relax whilst I went on a psilocybin-bliss-fueled trip. Little did I know that these very special mushrooms had other ideas in store for me which perhaps I should have realized when the dealer handed them to me with a knowing smirk, “These are golden teachers. Maybe you’ll learn a lesson or two,”… I did learn a lesson. A very big one.

A few hours after ingesting, perhaps a tiny bit more than I usually do, I felt the familiar rush of tingles that have accompanied my all very innocent and joyful mushroom trips. Almost as soon as I felt this, a heaviness came over me, like a bomb had been dropped in the pit of my stomach, pulling my feet back down to the earth and forcing me to feel an unexpectedly full and heavy pain.

I looked up, my feet stuck on the ground as if to say ‘you need to feel this’ and the gigantic  mountain before me morphed into a huge naked woman, stricken in pure agony and roped up against her will -but not making any sounds as if to not alarm her blissfully ignorant yet beautiful children, muddy-feet dancing on her giving ground. I noticed how much she loved them, how much she loved me and how she had through this love, allowed us for centuries to explore the darkest parts of consciousness to her detriment, but I could also feel that even she had a breaking point. That perhaps natural disasters were just an expression of pain she just couldn’t hold onto any longer.

” The earth is our mother.Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and the daughters of the earth. This we know. All things are connected. Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves” Chief Seattle

As I watched the smiling faces around me, I began to feel a resentment that I had always felt but had been unaware of until that moment. Why did I have to feel this as well?  Why did I have to walk around soaking up all the shit of the world whilst the rest of humanity moves throughout their days without a single clue? I was told intuitively that many of us have come here to transmute. That we have chosen to dance in the misery, to make art out of it, to turn it into light, that Mother Earth was now going through a shift herself and that she needs us. I felt the resentment melt away as if remembering some honourable calling.

Standing Rock has ignited this remembrance in me. Of how we came here not only to love but to stand together and fight for love and for the earth. It reminded me of a mothers’ love and the anger that results after being pushed to the edge. I feel as though those at Standing Rock are reflections of this. Of a mother so patient and kind but who simply can not stand the pain anymore.

Let’s go on a little ‘Trip’ (A second glance at psychedelics)

 

For many, upon hearing the word psychedelic or L.S.D, images emerge of ruffled hippies, staring longingly at fluorescent kaleidoscopes. These stereotypes arise from the psychedelic-filled ‘Hippie Movement ’ of the 1960’s where many of these hallucinogens have been illegalized in several parts of the world.

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide or its’ street name; ‘Acid’ is conceivably well- known but, there are numerous others. These include Psilocybin mushrooms (‘shrooms’ or ‘magic mushrooms’), Ayhauasca, and Ibogaine.

These substance seem to be making a bit of a ‘come-back’ in modern society .Carte Blanche covered a story in August about a lady named Monica Cromhout, who was arrested for ‘dealing’ Psilocybin mushrooms, although her related ceremonies have allegedly aided its recipients greatly. In Brazil certain inmates are being given Ayahuasca as a form of rehabilitation. The seeming rise in popularity of transcendental festivals has also certainly created a rise in psychedelic use.

There are many claimed benefits of using psychedelics. To name a few, a recent study has stated psilocybin as a possible causal factor in the termination of smoking addiction as well as reducing anxiety in cancer patients. Ayhauasca has reportedly improved the lives of many where it is claimed to help the brain move past traumas. Ibogaine has been said to aid with opiate withdrawal. Furthermore, The discovery of the revolutionary ‘Polymerase Chain Reaction’ was partially discovered by Dr Kary Mullis who attributed this finding to his use of LS.D. A third year Biochemistry student even went as far as to say. “…it literally removes blockages of ideas.” which is not an unfounded statement considering the fact that Ayahuasca and ‘magic mushrooms’ have both been claimed to increase the neuroplasticity of the brain thereby leading to improved cognitive ability.

” The social consequences of the psychedelic experience is clear-thinking-which trickles down as clear speech. Empowered Speech.”-Terence Mckenna

Of course, with such intense benefits come almost certain risks. To name an extreme few, some psychedelics can lead to flashbacks of the ‘trip’, are claimed to emphasize certain mental illnesses(although some claim the opposite) and cause one to take dangerous actions whilst ‘tripping’, ,where over dosage is also possible on certain substances. Some psychedelics such as Ayahuasca are advised to always be taken in a retreat setting with professionals. Lastly, let one not forget the possibility of being imprisoned.

The question then is, should one actually be put behind bars for experimenting with hallucinogens? If not, should it be ingested within a regulated setting or should we have the right as sovereign individuals to decide our own explorations? Certain measures could possibly be taken in society, likened to that of drinking laws. Whatsoever one chooses, the use of hallucinogens are increasingly evident and so perhaps their demonized status needs to be reconsidered.

 

 

 

Sources

Carte Blanche: http://carteblanche.dstv.com/player/909554
The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/world/americas/a-hallucinogenic-tea-time-for-some-brazilian-prisoners.html?_r=0
Wikipedia (background information) : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_hippie_movement
The Pharmaceutical Journal: http://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/features/psychedelics-entering-a-new-age-of-addiction-therapy/20066899.article
Metamorphosis- Ayahuasca Documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dz0XLVUq3WI
Ayahuasca and the brain https://youtu.be/aufjjU0EYxk
Promega connections http://www.promegaconnections.com/10-surprising-facts-about-hallucinogens-psychedelics-and-magic-mushrooms/
What is Neuroplasticity? http://www.whatisneuroplasticity.com/
Drug Free World http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/lsd/what-are-the-risks-of-lsd.html
Brown University Health Promotion: http://www.brown.edu/Student_Services/Health_Services/Health_Education/alcohol,_tobacco,_&_other_drugs/psilocybin.php
Dr. Kary Mullis about L.S.D https://youtu.be/CC5ApU4YKBU