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Animism

Huautla, hippies and hongos

A mural in Huautla commemorating Maria Sabina

I’m travelling in Mexico, researching the indigenous culture of magic mushrooms, or hongos as they are called here. Last weekend, I visited Huautla de Jimenez, a town eight hours drive from Mexico City, in the state of Oaxaca. It’s a remote mountain town, mainly populated by Mazatec Indians who speak Mazatec and also communicate through whistling. This little town was where Westerners discovered magic mushrooms. It was the spark that started the fire of the psychedelic counter-culture in the 1960s.

I should say at the outset that I’m no Mexico expert, nor an anthropologist or ethno-botanist. I travelled with two historians of Mexico – Ben Smith of Warwick University and Nathaniel Morris of Oxford – who are researching an AHRC project on the war on drugs. In the meantime here are my early impressions (I’ll correct my errors if you point them out).

There are records of Indian tribes taking mushrooms since at least the time of the conquistadors. Friars write disapprovingly of the Aztecs taking a substance they called teonanacatl, or ‘flesh of the gods’, in order to prophesy and discover the will of their gods – perhaps it was through mushrooms that they arrived at the uncanny prophesy that bearded men would come from the East and rule over them. They also took mushrooms for fun – there’s an anecdote of the Aztec aristocracy consuming them at a wedding dance.

Western ethno-botanists assumed that teonanocatl was peyote, which western scientists discovered was psycho-active in the 19th century. But in the 1930s, several scholars suggested it might be mushrooms instead – a theory finally proved in 1938 by famed ethno-botanist Richard Evans-Schultes, when he visited Huautla and identified the shrooms. He realized there are as many as 30 types of Mexican mushrooms which contain psilocybin, a psychedelic drug. The Mazatec Indians still consumed them in ceremonies called veladas, in which female shamans called curanderas used them to cure people of illnesses, physical and spiritual.

In the 1950s, a New York banker called Gordon Wasson made numerous laborious journeys to Huautla, driven by a passion for mushrooms and a desire to become the first Westerner to consume the hongos. In 1955, he got his wish. A curandera called Maria Sabina allowed him and his photographer into a velada after Wasson made up a story about needing the hongos‘ help to cure his sick son.

He was amazed by the experience. ‘For the first time, the word ecstasy took on a real meaning. For the first time it did not mean someone else’s state of mind.’ He drew on the theory of Aldous Huxley that psychedelics give one temporary access to the core mystical experience attained by religious virtuosos like St John of the Cross, and this experience lies at the esoteric core of all religions.

Although Wasson had said he would protect the secrecy of the sacred ritual, he sold the story and photographs of the velada for several thousand dollars to Life magazine, where a sub-editor coined the phrase ‘magic mushrooms’. He also gave enough clues in his writing for the curious to be able to identify the village as Huautla.

His article, published in 1958, was a smash hit and opened the floodgates for an extraordinary influx of hippy spiritual-seekers in the 1960s, who camped outside Huautla. Initially, they sought out Maria Sabina for veladas, but soon the locals were selling them the mushrooms and they were taking them wherever and whenever they felt like it, in the day, in the fields and rivers, with other substances, even dancing naked in the streets, thereby breaking Mazatec taboos about the proper way to treat the sacred medicine.

‘They were something remarkable’, remembers Lleno, a Huautla local who was a boy in the Sixties. ‘With their long hair, crazy clothes and rock music, always saying ‘peace and love’. Some of the locals were scared of them, although they also influenced the culture here – young people started growing their hair and listening to rock.’ Eventually, the municipal president had enough and called in the army in 1969, who shipped out the hippies in buses. The arrival of the army changed the town forever, bringing the little Mazatec town under the control of the national government.

The Army booted out the hippies in 1970.

There are tall stories about all kinds of celebrities descending on Huautla during that brief mushroom frenzy – John Lennon, Simon and Garfunkel – but we do know for sure that the psychologist Timothy Leary visited Mexico, took shrooms, had a mystical experience, then returned to Harvard to establish the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which spread the gospel of psychedelics throughout western culture.

Leary and Wasson helped to shape the idea that psychedelics lead to a mystical, ecstatic experience, an experience of unitive consciousness beyond time, space and culture. This idea is still very influential in American psychedelic science – in 2006, American researchers at John Hopkins University started to study psilocybin again after a hiatus of 40 years, with a paper called ‘Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences.’ This mystical experience of being one with all things helps free people from their habitual ego patterns and releases them – according to recent trials – from depression, addiction, even fear of death.

There’s much to celebrate in recent Western psychedelic research, but it’s problematic to claim that psychedelics always – or even usually – lead to mystical experiences of unitive consciousness. The problem with this theory, as cultural historian Andy Letcher pointed out in his book Shroom, is that it ignores the way different cultures treat psychedelic substances, and reduces the weird variety of freaky experiences people can have into one box, called ‘core mystical experience’.

The idea psychedelics take us to some mystical state beyond culture is itself culture-bound – it’s the product of the culture of American transcendentalism, of William James, and of Aldous Huxley’s perennialist mysticism. The participants in John Hopkins’ trials have mystical experiences partly because that’s what they’re expected to have –  the mind responds to the expectations and theories we bring to it, through what the philosopher Ian Hacking calls ‘looping effects’. People in Pentecostal churches encounter the Holy Spirit because they expect to…and so on.

Other cultures frame psychedelic experiences in different ways, leading to different mental outcomes. The anthropologist Nicholas Langlitz has shown that European psychedelic laboratories, like those of Zurich and Imperial College, tend to be more secular and Freudian, and to use phrases like ‘ego-death’ or ‘psychosis-imitation’ rather than ‘mystical experience’. Participants in their labs obediently report fewer mystical experiences.

The Mazatec think about hongos in their own way. They naturally do not take mushrooms for an ecstatic release from the disenchantment of Western modernity. Sabina said: ‘Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well.’ The mushrooms were a form of medicine for those without access to proper healthcare, let alone psychotherapy or psychiatry. ‘We didn’t take them out of curiosity’, says Florencio Carrera, an elderly former teacher in Huautla. ‘We took them out of necessity’.

Rather than an ecstatic connection to the cosmos, ‘ultimate Mind’ or some such lofty transcendental goal, the Mazatecs took (and occasionally still take) mushrooms to connect to local saints or local spirits, to help with local problems in their relationships, work or health. As David Luke of Greenwich University has put it, theirs is a horizontal transcendence, rather than the vertical individualist transcendence of Wasson, Leary, Huxley et al.

They also have a different model of illness, believing that some illnesses or accidents are caused by sorcery, by external enchantment. You could claim, as some anthropologists do, that while Westerners think emotional problems are caused by trauma in their past which are resolved through acceptance and insight, Mazatecs are more likely to think emotional problems are caused by external events – curses by your enemies or offences against the local spirits – which are resolved through magic.

However, you can over-emphasize the differences between Mazatec and Western healing cultures. Today, one also notices some similarities.

I visited a local curandera called Profesora Elodia, who lives in a concrete bungalow on the outskirts of Huautla. As in a Harley Street surgery, I waited outside while Elodia finished a consultation with a local. Then Elodia guided me in to her tiny shrine room, sat me down, and asked how she could help. Like Wasson, I made up a story to get access, claiming I was suffering from low energy and poor sleep (I was half-worried she would misunderstand me and give me a herbal cure for impotence, leading to unintended results). She asked me to write down my name and birthplace, and then began to ask the spirits for help for Julian from the country of London. She said prayers to the saints in Spanish, and prayers in Mazatec too, perhaps to the local spirits or duendes. Then she rubbed an egg all over my body, pushed some pressure points, blew water in my face, sucked the air around me, lit a candle and said a prayer to protect me from my enemies. So far, so magical.

But she also offered therapeutic advice that wasn’t so far from what I’d be offered by a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist or mindfulness life-coach. She told me to have faith in myself, to believe I can succeed in my work. She told me not to think too much about the past or future, but focus on the present. She spoke in parables – see how this water runs down the hill, be like that, let the past go. When I spoke a bit about family troubles, she told me not to let my parents’ problems ruin my life, or I’d transmit them to my own children.

I asked her about the mushrooms, and what they can do, and she said: ‘They help you realize things you haven’t been paying attention to, in your soul.’ Again, that’s pretty close to what you’d hear from psychedelic therapists working in western research labs. Rosalind Watts, an NHS therapist who works at Imperial College’s psychedelic lab, says mushrooms help you confront and accept your shadow – a Jungian term for the parts of the psyche you have ignored or repressed.

Local Mazatecs also spoke of how mushrooms helped them confront and integrate trauma from their past – Florencio said mushrooms helped him overcome emotional problems after he was in a car crash, while another lady (whose name I’ll keep confidential) told us that she first took mushrooms when she was 14 after a trauma: ‘Something bad happened to me and I needed help. It helps young people find a reason to live. It can be scary, especially if people have been raped. You feel very afraid but afterwards you feel better. You can let it go.’ Elodia said: ‘The mushrooms let you remove the weight you have been carrying and pick yourself up.’

Both Westerners and Mazatecs also speak of feeling more connected to nature through mushrooms – Maria Sabina spoke of how, when she first took mushrooms as an adolescent, she felt all of nature was filled with God and speaking to her. That’s not so far from a Western-style mystical experience.

I don’t know to what extent contemporary Mazatecs have incorporated Western psychological concepts into their healing discourse. If so, it shows that cultures aren’t hermetically sealed, but leak into each other. Or perhaps certain healing mechanisms are universal – curanderos, like CBT or mindfulness coaches, emphasize the importance of concentration, discipline, integrity.

And most medical procedures rely at least partly on the faith and hope of the patient. ‘Those that believe are healed’, said Sabina. Sadly, she felt the mushrooms lost some of their power once the hippies had desecrated the secret ritual. She became something of a pariah in Huautla, although once she was dead she was almost canonized, and is now celebrated in a large statue of her standing on a mushroom as you enter the town. Florencio likewise laments: ‘The arrival of the hippies swept away the old ways, and the mysticism and magic of Huautla.’

It’s interesting to wonder if the same will happen with Western psychedelic medicine, as it goes from being the latest new wonder drug to something familiar, standardized and commodified. Even as rational a therapy as CBT no longer works as well as it did in the 1960s, when it was the new wonder therapy. Will the miracle results of psilocybin therapy level off in a decade or two?

Today, Huautla has mushroom regalia festooned all over the town in a bid to bring the tourists back, but we hardly saw any – the town is too far away from Mexico City or Oaxaca City. Instead, the new mushroom Mecca is San Jose del Pacifico, a tiny town of 700 people conveniently located on the main highway from Oaxaca City to the beaches of Puerto Escondido.

The first hippies arrived here in the early 70s, perhaps after having been booted out from Huautla – the locals say they arrived after a solar eclipse. They bought huts in the hills, and found a local curandero to sell them mushrooms. Gradually the village became a New Age hot-spot, offering tourists a menu of therapies like Reiki, hydrotherapy, sweat lodges and mushrooms.

‘The gringos mainly take them in the day, and wander in the forest or by the river’, says a local young woman. ‘Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they cry, sometimes they stare at trees. They don’t bother anyone.’ I asked her if the locals in San Jose ever take them. ‘Oh no’, she laughed. ‘Only the gringos.’ 

Integrating ayahuasca into western healthcare (part 2)

Here is part 2 of my interview with pioneering researcher Milan Scheidegger, who works in the psychedelics lab at University of Zurich. You can read part 1 here. In this half of the interview, we discuss how to translate aspects of indigenous ayahuasca rituals – such as the shaman or sacred plant songs – into the context of western healthcare. We also discuss Milan’s plans to establish a psychedelic healing clinic in Switzerland.

In terms of translating the elements of indigenous psychedelic rituals into a western context, the role of the shaman is taken by a therapist. The therapist becomes a spiritual guide, not just someone you talk to. They acquire a sort of vatic standing. What do you think of the scientist as shaman?

It’s a controversial topic. In Switzerland, we had a psychiatrist called Samuel Widmer, who offered psycholytic therapy with substances like LSD and MDMA with special regulatory permission. During his work, he moved from being a clinical psychiatrist to being a spiritual guru, offering tantra retreats with substances. He acquired many followers dressed in white, who lived in a commune. [He also had two wives and preached free love.]

Similar to what happened with Timothy Leary and Ram Dass? Timothy Leary tried to set up a religion after he was fired from Harvard…

Yes somewhat. These things can happen also in other parts of society, it is not solely related to psychedelics. It can be dangerous of course, this change in social role and dynamic. That’s why this type of work poses ethical challenges in terms of the personal integrity of the facilitator. What is their motivation in doing this work? Is it just a narcissistic, histrionic motivation to become a guru, or is it a humble motivation to reduce human suffering? Responsible use of psychedelics is related to the ability of the therapists to question their own role, providing a safe space for the transformation to happen, rather than strongly guiding the role. Yeah, it’s a problem we can’t get rid of. There are also guru-type personalities in other realms of society.

Indeed, and in other realms of therapy and psychiatry too. Then there’s the role of nature in the psychedelic healing process. You did a masters on deep ecology, didn’t you? Most psychedelic research is done in the lab, rather than deep in nature.

Yes. Our psilocybin meditation study is the only study that took place in an aesthetically pleasing retreat centre in nature. Obviously this type of setting has a huge influence on the experience of participants. I remember my own ayahuasca experience in the jungle, where one’s ego boundaries dissolve and you can’t distinguish anymore if the sounds from the animals are out there or in here. That’s why I believe that the widespread use of psychoactive plants in human cultures must have some deep ecological function. My colleague Matthias Forstmann recently published an interesting study on how lifetime experience with psychedelics predicts pro-environmental behavior through an increase in nature-relatedness. They argue that the mechanism is that, through dissolving our ego boundaries, we start to self-identify with nature. When the distinction between self and nature becomes more permeable, we incorporate nature into our self-concept and start to behave more responsibly. That is very similar to taking a non-dual perspective, then hurting somebody out there is actually damaging yourself. There are huge ethical implications in deep ecological thinking.

So you’d prefer the psychedelic clinic of the future to be in some beautiful natural setting?

Yes, the ideal setting would be a retreat centre in nature, offering inpatient treatments for 1-3 weeks with followup outpatient care. The retreat facilitates transformation because it takes patients out of their habitual dysfunctional settings, offering psychotherapy, body-work, music therapy, nature-exposures, consciousness-altering rituals, psycho-education and integration. When psychotherapy becomes more experiential, than just cognitive, people are more likely to change.

What about the importance of the group. Psychedelic research tends to study individuals. Do you think groups are the best setting?

From our experience with the psilocybin meditation study and my participation in indigenous rituals, a group seems to be an ideal setting for psychedelic therapy. The level of solidarity can be very deep and therapeutic, especially when participants share their experience in a group. We are all part of a life process, creating an interpersonal conscious field together through our relationships, you get to see that others’ experiences can mirror your own, to listen to similar stories which can also reveal your own patterns and struggles. It’s not different from other types of group psychotherapy. However, it’s difficult to get regulatory permission to work with psychedelic substances in groups because it’s not yet established within the biomedical treatment paradigm. The Swiss Society for Psycholytic Therapy had special permission from 1988-1993 to work in groups of patients, but most of the clinical studies are of individuals.

The maloka at the Temple of the Way of Light, a western-indigenous ayahuasca centre in Peru

How about the role of music? Could you tell me about your work with the Sound Trance Institute.

At the World Ayahuasca Conference 2014 in Ibiza, Joel Olivé – an ethnomusician from Spain – was giving a concert with archaic instruments. I was very touched by the resonance field and collective space of consciousness that opened up in the conference hall just through Joel’s playing of the archaic instruments.

What are archaic instruments?

The oldest archaic instrument of course is our own voice. Other instruments include didgeridoos, monochord, drums, cymbals, rattles, kalimbas, singing bowls, and symphonic gongs. It’s acoustic instruments that have been used by tribal societies from all over the world to create sound vibrations that feel very organic, and which facilitate entrance into trance states. When archaic instruments are used in a specific sequence, they induce states of consciousness that are very similar to psychedelic therapy and shamanic rituals. Peter Hess, a German psychiatrist and music therapist developed the so-called Gong Therapy, a new form of receptive sound therapy, that can be better integrated in our culture and society. As a musician, I became very inspired and passionate about this approach. Now I am training with Peter and Joel and my vision is to combine music therapy with psychedelic-assisted therapy in the future.

You’ve also done research into psychedelics and meditation. Can you tell me about that, and how meditation and psychedelics can work together?

Our primary interest was to research the neurobiology of the self and its alteration through psychedelics. Since long-term meditators are trained experts in self-regulation and in navigating  consciousness, we were interested in how they will deal with psychedelic experiences. As study participants, they spent 5 days in a silent meditation retreat, and we compared how psilocybin affected their meditation experience compared to a placebo group. We were particularly interested how psilocybin affects meditation depth, the occurrence of mystical experiences, and quality of life afterwards. Some participants have been meditating for 20 years, so you’d expect perhaps there is not much room to go deeper. But it was quite surprising to see that the psilocybin group not only reached higher levels of meditation depth and mystical-type experiences, but also truly improved on follow-up measures of mindfulness, self-acceptance, sense of purpose and appreciation for life, and less fear of death.

I feel the ayahuasca retreat I went on in October has helped my meditation practice since then. First of all, meditation practice is so useful during the psychedelic experience. Things like staying in the moment, following your breath, connecting to your body, reminding yourself things will pass, self-acceptance – these are such useful tools during psychedelic experience, that it really gives you a sense of the efficacy of those tools, which motivates you to work harder on meditation in the weeks and months afterwards.

As you mention, it’s a mutual relationship. On the one hand, exploring deeper states of consciousness through psychedelics can motivate a daily mindfulness practice. Psychedelic experiences can refresh the meaning behind your practice and be revealing even after sitting on a meditation cushion for 20 years. When you return to the madness of everyday dual existence and the polarities of life, having had a psychedelic experience can broaden your flexibility and courage in coping with difficult experiences. On the other hand, there are these other mindfulness capabilities that you mention – where psychedelics can support processes such as dis-identification from self-limiting beliefs or developing radical acceptance towards things you cannot change in life.

And meditation helps with the integration, with turning altered states into altered traits.

Yes, and it helps with the preparation too. In our study we found that long-term meditators had much less fear response to the psychedelic experience than non-meditators. Meditation can increase your conscious competence, going from narrow-minded consciousness to a broader perspective, and feeling more accepting of what happens.

There should be a masters degree in conscious competence.

You put yourself through a lot of conscious competence practices for your last book [The Art of Losing Control]!

Well…conscious incompetence maybe. Tell me about the Reconnect project.

The Reconnect Foundation is a non-profit organisation based in Switzerland, with the mission to establish a novel approach to transformational and sustainable healthcare with a focus on mental health and holistic well-being. It’s proposing a new paradigm of transformation-based psychotherapy, which means moving from the biomedical substitution-oriented model, for example giving anti-depressants every day for depression, towards more of a transformation-based approach, inspired by consciousness-altering techniques, to provide a sense of re-connection, to self, others and nature. The foundation also supports research into the therapeutic potential of psychointegrative plant medicines like ayahuasca. 

Will this potentially also be a psychedelic therapy centre?

Yes, we would like to offer evidence-based psychedelic-assisted therapy in the future.

What are the chances of psychedelic therapy being legalized in Switzerland?

It’s the perfect place because Switzerland has a long history with psychedelics, including Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD, and the long-standing psychedelic research at the University of Zurich over the last 20-30 years. The Swiss Society for Psycholytic Therapy received special permissions for psychedelic-assisted therapy in the past. And regulatory authorities are quite pragmatic, as long as we can proof the safety and efficacy of our approach. So I assume we have a good chance.

Where would Reconnect be based? In the Alps?

Currently, most of our researchers and clinicians are based in Zurich, but indeed the Swiss Alps would be a perfect setting to set up a mental health centre.

Finally, what are the questions not being sufficiently explored in psychedelic or ecstatic research? And what are the biggest challenges for the field?

Well, I see big challenges and dangers with respect to exposing the general public to psychedelics. The studies that have been published in the last few years are quite enthusiastic about the usefulness of psychedelics to treat various mental health disorders. It’s always dangerous to hop on trends because you can lose your critical perspective. I’ve often asked myself during my clinical practice, which of my patients would probably benefit from psychedelic therapy? We have no idea or data to estimate the costs and benefits and risks of psychedelic therapy for an individual patient. If we want to arrive there, a lot of research has to be done. I see a danger that clinicians who have no experience with psychedelics themselves, who haven’t gone through psychedelic training or haven’t had the chance to learn in indigenous or other legal contexts, will just administer these drugs in a setting that isn’t safe or effective enough. Psychedelics are like a surgeon’s knife, you need to be well trained to use this powerful tool purposefully, it’s not enough to watch how to do proper surgery on a YouTube channel. Similarly, the level of depth of a psychoanalysis varies with the reflective capacity and self-experience of your therapist. In my opinion, the same standards should apply to the responsible use of psychedelics in medical practice.

As for other frontiers, I have a special interest in non-dual experiences. Psychedelics are exciting molecular tools to systematically research this frontier of consciousness. Non-dual experiences were reported by mystics from various religious backgrounds, but they are also found among users of psychedelics, and they are the most challenging from a philosophical, phenomenological and naturalistic point of view. How can we make sense of a non-dual experience in terms of brain dynamics? If we understand how the brain mediates these two states – the dual and the non-dual mode of information processing – it could greatly advance our understanding of consciousness. There is also some ontological doubt about these experiences – what do they teach us about the nature of consciousness and the fabric of reality? We cross an epistemological boundary here that is very exciting for me, because non-dual experiences pose a challenge on integrating both scientific and spiritual perspectives on life.

One of the things that I feel could be more studied is the nature of the imagination. Psychedelics obviously open up the imaginative faculty in the subconscious – metaphors, symbols, stories, myths, our connection to art and music. When we’re asking about the value or validity of our experiences, that’s also a question of the value and validity of the imagination. The 17th-century materialist view of the imagination, in Thomas Hobbes for example, is that is just creates sandcastles in the sky, empty chimeras. But then you have the idea in medieval Christianity or Romanticism that the imagination can be a visionary, prophetic faculty. I don’t see that discussed much in psychedelic research.

Absolutely, that’s a new frontier. Imagination plays an important role in psychotherapy, you can work on your self-image through various imagination exercises. We can use our imagination to build up compassion to ourselves and others, and to review our self-limiting narratives and to transform them, to liberate ourselves from dysfunctional patterns. We know that psychedelics increase our imaginative capabilities, so that could be a great paradigm.

Indeed.  In Stephan Beyer’s book Singing with Plants, he talks about medicine and theatre, and of helping a person to a story about their illness and their recovery. He calls it ’emplotment’ – ‘the activity of making sense of the story’. He writes: ‘to heal is to rebuild the shattered lifeworld of the sick person’. Psychedelic medicine really does that, it helps people to new narratives: ‘I was broken, then I went to the jungle to take ayahuasca, now I’m better’. Or the opposite: ‘I was well, then I did LSD, now I’m fucked’.

So, as a final frontier, your work looks at nature, music and psychedelics. It’s interesting to think about how music connects us to nature. We don’t think about that much in the West. But Amazon shamans say the plants teach them their songs, and their songs call in the plant spirits. I think about Renaissance songs, like in Shakespeare, or Beatles songs like Blackbird, or Romantic odes to mountains, flowers and birds – how many western poems are songs that connect us to birds, or flowers, or mountains. So in that sense music and poetry deepen our connection to the spirits of nature.

Yes, the connection of life and nature through rhythm and music is very exciting. Since the 1970s, the Damanhur community in Italy has researched plant intelligence and communication. They created an instrument able to perceive the electromagnetic variations from the surface of plant leaves to the root system and translated them into sound. It’s incredible, it sounds like composed music, as if there is an innate ability or intelligence in nature to communicate intentionally. Our brain does not seem to be the only interface, where mind and nature meet.