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hallucinogenics

The ethical and the numinous in psychedelic culture

I’ve spent the last two days at Breaking Convention, a conference on psychedelics at the University of Greenwich organized by some brave academics. It’s my favourite academic conference, by a long stretch.

Academic conferences are typically uptight, dull, low-energy events, driven largely by ambition, fear, awkwardness and resentment. Breaking Convention isn’t like that at all, it’s a warm, friendly, freaky place, that brings together chemists, neuroscientists, therapists, artists, historians, philosophers, shaman, witches, performance artists, and a lot of DIY psychonauts. There’s some great critical research there, but it’s also totally fine to discuss your own weird experiences – they’re also valid data. And there’s a healthy pluralism of philosophical viewpoints, from naturalist to animist. That’s totally different from the exclusive naturalism of most academic conferences.

When I attended the previous Breaking Convention in 2015, psychedelics looked on the verge of going primetime. We heard reports from scientists at institutions like NYU, Imperial College and Johns Hopkins of the remarkable therapeutic benefits of psychedelics: just one or two doses of psilocybin (the drug in magic mushrooms) helped 60% of participants in a small trial to overcome chronic depression; as well as 80% of participants in another trial to give up smoking. Psychedelics also significantly lowered death-anxiety in people with serious cancer, apparently by triggering a ‘mystical experience’.

In the two years since then, I’ve been struck by how positive media coverage is of psychedelic therapy, even in the right-wing media. There have been enthusiastic articles in the Daily Mail, the Express, the Telegraph, and even a segment on micro-dosing on BBC daytime TV show, Victoria. If psychedelics really do help people overcome depression, anxiety, addiction and the fear of death (and they do), then it seems only a matter of time before they’re legal, and available as a therapeutic treatment through the NHS.

I remember Rick Doblin, head of the psychedelic research organisation MAPS, saying in 2015 that psychedelics needed to stop being a transgressive counterculture and go mainstream. Less hippy freaks, more soccer moms. Well, microdosing for emotional healing is likely to be the way that happens. With careful microdosing, your reality is barely altered, you don’t even get any visuals, but the psychedelics apparently still have an emotional or neuro-chemical effect at the subliminal level. Look at the citizen science movement in the US to legalize microdosing for cluster headaches – they don’t want a revolution, they just want to stop having awful headaches (preferably paid for by medical insurance). 

Keeping it weird

Yet what struck me most, during this Breaking Convention, was an anxiety about what might be lost if / when psychedelics are legalized and go mainstream. While there were sessions on new therapeutic trials of psychedelics, the main emphasis seemed to be on ‘keeping it weird’ – to quote the title of one session. I mean, look at the conference poster – this is not a movement rushing into the mainstream.

At one presentation, religious studies scholar Erik Davis said he wanted to resist the instrumentalization and medicalization of psychedelics. He liked the psychedelic counterculture – its weirdness, its trashiness, its transgressiveness. The audience – a motley crew of thai-dye freaks and feathered urban shaman – cheered their support. They’re a guerrilla movement not ready to come out of the jungle.

Next to him, Dennis McKenna – ethnobotanist and brother of famous psychedelic guru Terence McKenna – told the story of a legendary psychedelic trip his brother and he undertook in their 20s, when they munched a huge amount of magic mushrooms in Colombia. Dennis disappeared for 14 days, ‘dislocated in the space-time continuum’, while his brother witnessed a giant UFO landing and spent the next decades of his life trying to construct a magic box which neither he nor anyone else fully understood. The psychedelic counter-culture loves this sort of weird tale, which eludes easy classification.

Psychedelic studies at the moment remind me of 17th-century natural philosophy, with its love of ‘strange facts’. As historians Lorraine Dalston and Katherine Park explored in Wonders and the Order of Nature, there was a moment in the 17th century, when natural philosophers circulated accounts of anomalous events – weird animals, odd astronomical events, freaky experiments with electricity – partly as a means of chipping away at the hegemony of the Aristotelian worldview, and partly just for fun. But then, in the 18th century, these anomalous incidents become subsumed into the new consensus of materialism. Wonder and a yearning for the freaky came to be seen as vulgar.

Likewise, many psychedelic explorers are fascinated by the weird and marvellous. But eventually, either psychedelics will become absorbed into the existing secular materialist medical paradigm or – more likely – a new paradigm will emerge, a new consensus on reality, with its own rules and enforcers. What could that new paradigm be? What theology or ethics could emerge from the psychedelic renaissance?

The most obvious way psychedelic therapy is likely to change our worldview is by changing our idea of the self. You can either dismiss all psychedelic visions as meaningless, or you can interpret them as messages from some sort of Jungian or Jamesian subconscious. As Jung said, the subconscious seems to communicate to us through symbolic imagery. Trips are often healing – some intelligence in the subconscious wants to guide us to wholeness. The mainstreaming of psychedelics is also likely to underline the interconnectedness between the mind and the body, particularly the subconscious mind and the autonomic nervous system.

But what about the interconnectedness of our mind with others’ minds, with the natural world, with the cosmos? What about people’s encounters with spirit-beings? 

As Tamara Freimoser and Elena Fountoglou have found, around 50% of people who take ayahuasca report ‘encounters with supra-human spiritual entities’, as well as 36% of people on DMT, 12% on psilocybin, 17% on LSD. Often, these encounters are healing – psychedelic trips seem to lower death-anxiety in patients with cancer because they report an encounter with some sort of ‘higher power’ which makes them believe materialism isn’t the whole story and death isn’t necessarily the end. The animist aspects of psychedelics are sometimes fundamental to the healing experience (though not always).

But not all encounters with spirit-beings are pleasant. According to the ‘global ayahuasca project’, which has interviewed around 1600 people who’ve taken ayahuasca, around 20% report the feeling of being under spiritual attack. In Rick Strassman’s famous DMT experiment, participants reported encounters with weird alien creatures who probed, devoured and even raped them.

Are these experiences projections from the individual subconscious, or encounters with something real and transpersonal – a collective unconscious, the spirits of nature, ancestor-spirits, cosmic consciousness, aliens, Whatever? Who the hell knows. Strassman himself has now returned to Judaism and insists we need to learn the discernment of spirits to protect ourselves against malevolent spirit entities.

This is the trickiest issue for psychedelics as they go mainstream. On the one hand, psychedelics are very healing, and who’s not up for healing?  On the other hand, they sometimes involve spirit-encounters, and spirits are just…well…verboten in the existing secular materialist paradigm of medicine.

I would suggest that we, as a culture, don’t get too hung up on the freaky. Weird things happen on trips, as they do on meditation retreats, pilgrimages, near-death experiences, and in ordinary life. You may encounter spirit-beings and not be entirely sure if they’re projections or independent entities. You can get lost down that rabbit hole. The main thing is to try and become a wiser and more loving being. That’s harder, and superficially less interesting, but more meaningful and valuable in the long-run. Maybe a personal encounter with Jesus Christ has hugely helped you to become a wiser and more loving person – that’s awesome. But I don’t think it’s essential. 

As the religious scholar Rudolph Otto said, every religion needs to find a balance between the numinous (ie religious or mystical experiences) and the ethical. You shouldn’t exclude the numinous, but neither should you obsess over it and forget the ethical. The great theologian Huston Smith, who took psychedelics with Timothy Leary and was sympathetic to psychedelics, nonetheless warned:

A religion made up solely of heightened religious experiences would not be a religion at all…. The major religious traditions address the mysteries (with or without entheogens), but they have other business to do: widen understanding, give meaning, provide solace, promote loving-kindness, and connect human being to human being. This is my litmus test for any mental experience however induced: does it enhance your whole life, and then do you in turn enhance the lives of others?

Psychedelic culture needs to find a balance between numinous experiences like the McKennas’ UFO encounters, and more basic ethical tasks – how to help people, how to make them more open, loving and wise. ‘Traits, not states’, insisted Huston Smith. Don’t get hung up on seeking altered states for their own sake. Seek altered traits – are you becoming a kinder and wiser person? Psychedelics can help with that (there’s some evidence they help make people more open and more reverential to nature, for example), but so can many other less dramatic spiritual practices like meditation, prayer, volunteering.

On the way to Breaking Convention, I listened to this great interview by Russell Brand with Sharon Salzberg, a leading Western practitioner of loving-kindness meditation (you can download it on iTunes here). I love Salzberg’s pragmatic worldview – she doesn’t exclude the supernatural, but she doesn’t obsess over it. Brand constantly tests the limits of her worldview – does she believe in reincarnation? Yes. Does she believe in God?  She notes how the Buddha remained silent on this question, suggesting that – whether there is a God / higher power or not, the human task remains the same of developing our consciousness and trying to become wiser and kinder beings, rather than getting stuck in disputes about whose God is better.

What about weird ‘siddhis’ or powers like telepathy or bilocation, which some holy people supposedly develop. Does she have any weird powers? No. Has she met holy people who do? Yes, but so what. ‘If you really want to, you can learn to read minds, but it’s not a path of wisdom, it’s a path of power. I had a woman teacher, my most important teacher. She came to practice after losing her husband and two children. The doctor said to her you’ll die of a broken heart unless you learn to meditate. So she went to the temple to learn to meditate. When she emerged, she was so compassionate and loving. She was radiant. They say she had powers. They say she could bake a potato in her hands. But so what? When I think of her I don’t think of that. I don’t care. She’s the person who was loving to everyone.’

I think there probably are spirit-beings ‘out there’, but I don’t think we should obsess over them. And attempts to describe God / the higher power are just attempts, we shouldn’t get hung up on our imperfect verbal definitions, much less attack others for their different definitions. The main task facing homo sapiens is to become wiser and more loving beings. That’s the North Star we need to stay focused on. The weird is fun but it’s not the main event.

New book on ecstatic experience (not by me)

There’s a new book out later this month on the psychology of ecstatic experiences, and why they’re good for us. It’s called Stealing Fire, by two performance coaches, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal. It might be disconcerting to have another book on ecstasy published two months before my own, but actually I’m glad others are walking the same path and coming to similar conclusions. I disagree on one or two points the authors make, however. The book isn’t out until later this month, but I heard them on The Psychology Podcast, here. Great podcast by the way.

So why did these two coaches, who specialize in teaching ‘flow’, start talking instead about ecstasy, or ‘ecstasis’ as they call it in the ancient Greek word. Kotler says that they started coming across similar experiences across a whole range of domains – meditation, psychedelics, the arts, sex, extreme sports. ‘It was a broader category of which flow is a subset.’ In fact, the Positive Psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihayli developed his concept of flow (i.e moments where we’re blissfully absorbed into a challenging activity) out of the idea of ecstasy, as he told me in this interview.

Nomenclature is tricky for this domain of experience. William James and Alister Hardy wrote of ‘religious experiences’, defining them as ‘individuals standing alone in relation to the divine’ – but that ignored collective ecstatic experiences, and the fact atheists also have moments of self-transcendence. Durkheim spoke of ‘collective effervescence’ which sounds like a bubble bath. Abraham Maslow wrote of ‘peak experiences’, but that ignores the fact these experiences are often terrifying, and occur to people in life-crises. These days, the few psychologists who explore this terrain still haven’t agreed on nomenclature – some study ‘self-transcendence’, others ‘out-of-the-ordinary or anomalous experiences’, others ‘mystical experiences’, or ‘altered states of consciousness’. Not to mention the related research fields on hypnosis, trance and possession. The topic is so interdisciplinary – from aesthetics to sex to sports to politics – and the authors are to be applauded for recognizing that and not being deterred.

Personally, I’ve also gone for ‘ecstasy’ as my preferred term, because it’s got the longest history. But the risk of that is people think you mean either MDMA or ‘feeling very, very happy’. The authors make the mistake too of describing ecstasius as ‘north-of-happy states’. No! As Gordon Wasson, who reintroduced magic mushrooms into western culture, wrote: ‘In common parlance ecstasy is fun. But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. The vulgar abuse the word: we must recapture it in its full and terrifying sense.’ Another risk, which I may have fallen into, is that talking about ‘ecstatic experience’ makes it all about something happening within oneself, something one ‘has’, rather than something transpersonal happening beyond you, an encounter or realization rather than an experience (which sounds more like a thrill).

The altered states economy

The authors are coaches who make a lot of money giving talks and workshops to companies and CEOs on flow and peak performance, so they are quite focused on the practical business applications of ecstasy. They speak of the ‘altered states economy’, and suggest that today we spend around $4 trillion a year trying to get out of our heads and beyond our egos. ‘That’s insane, and no one’s talking about it’, says Wheal. To get to this figure, they added up all that we spend on, say, legal and illegal drugs, the alcohol industry, extreme sports, gaming, immersive arts like IMAX or festivals, gambling, self-help and psychology, and so on. It’s a bit rough-and-ready, but their basic point is right – the human desire for self-transcendence and ego-loss is fundamental, and late capitalism has found many ways to make money from it, including addictive behaviours like drugs and gambling. I’ve also written about what I call (in a nod to Joe Pine’s idea of the experience economy), the ‘ecstatic experience economy‘. There is also a political economy of ecstasy – states and empires use awe and wonder to increase their power, and now corporations like Disney, Cirque du Soleil and Magic Leap sell us enchantment and transcendence.

Tony Robbins and the human potential movement helped to instrumentalize ecstasy as a tool to capitalist success

The authors also want to convince us of how ecstasy leads to peak performance. This is very much in the tradition of human potential coaches like Anthony Robbins, who teaches how ecstatic or peak states can unlock our life-potential (hence his use of fire-walking, pumping techno, trampolines and so on in his seminars). They’re particularly interested in how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs used meditation and psychedelics to unlock their creativity. They quote life-hacking guru Tim Ferriss: ‘The billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.’ Tune in, turn on, get rich!

This weird fusion of the ecstatic and the capitalist goes back to Stanford Uni in the 1970s, when pioneers of the digital economy like Jobs, Stewart Brand and Douglas Engelbart mixed coding with Bay Area spirituality. Engelbart introduced LSD boot-camps at his Stanford research unit (after one trip he invented a toilet that played music when you peed in it). This led to the idea that the main route to ecstatic experiences would be the start-up, the dot.commune, the guru-CEO creating a new utopia in cyberspace. A great introduction to this is Fred Turner’s history, From Counterculture to Cyberculture.

I guess my issue with the selling of ecstasy as a way to peak capitalist performance is that, historically, ecstatic experiences have involved a revolution in the self and a revolution in values. St Paul is utterly transformed after his Damascene moment, his values are utterly transformed – he has died, someone new has been born. The instrumental use of ecstasy for conventional goals of success and power seems to me closer to the magic of Simon Magus or Aleister Crowley. But it’s often there in religion too – what is the Prosperity Gospel if not the instrumentalization of ecstasy for worldly aims?

The risk of the psychology or neurobiology of ecstasy is it leaves out the ethics. Most spiritual traditions emphasize that ecstatic experiences are at best a distraction and at worst a serious risk if they’re not grounded in strong ethics. Later psychologists have come to this conclusion too – William James suggested we evaluate religious experiences based on the ‘fruits’. I think the authors understand this, they speak of the ‘dark side’ of ecstasy, and warn it often leads to unbridled hedonism. But that’s not the main risk, historically. The main risk is that ecstasy without humility leads to pride, the feeling that you’re special, chosen, elite, Crowleian supermen. Kotler and Wheal’s book, talking about the special ‘Prometheans’ or ‘supermen’ whose ecstatic experiences prove how wise and advanced they are (and rich! did we mention they’re rich?), could feed this tendency.

The four drivers of ecstasis

The authors argue we’re at a special moment in history, when suddenly we understand ecstatic experiences better than ever, and can get them ‘at a flick of a switch’. Why now? Because of four drivers. Firstly, psychology. Kotler says that, after William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902, psychology took a ‘hundred-year detour’ and focused on psychopathology. Altered states of consciousness were dismissed or pathologized, but in the last decade psychologists like Czikszentimihayli and David Yaden have realized they’re actually good for us. This is not quite right – as co-author Jamie Wheal notes, ecstatic experiences were hugely studied in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, particularly through the human potential movement and transpersonal psychology. What’s really happened in the last decade is that transpersonal psychology has gone mainstream, thanks to the rise of contemplative science and the return of psychedelic science.

Secondly, neurobiology. Brain-scanning techniques have enabled scientists to take ecstasy more seriously. Before, it seemed a very flakey topic for research, that led into career cul-de-sacs like parapsychology or after-death-investigations. But look, a brain-scan – something really is happening! This was reassuring for the Doubting Thomases in academia. Now, there is interesting neurobiology on ecstasy done by scientists like Andrew Newberg, Richard Davidson and Robin Carhart-Harris, showing the neural correlates of states of ego-loss and deep absorption.

There is a danger that these very early insights are then uncritically seized upon to argue that ‘the mystical is now neurobiological’, as Wheal puts it, or that the mystical has now been ‘decoded’ as Kotler says. In other words, because something happens in the brain, mystical experiences are nothing but brain events. This would be a big mistake by psychiatry – it has a 300-year bad record of pathologizing and ignoring these experiences, to the great harm of many people and of western culture in general, for which no one has ever apologized. Now, when it starts seeing the positive side of these experiences, it again rushes to a triumphalist scientistic interpretation.

As the podcast presenter, Scott Barry Kaufmann, who researches in this field, points out: ‘Everything is biologically mediated, so that statement is not as exciting as you think. There’s so much we don’t know – we’re at the start, not the end point.’ He’s quite right. Andrew Newberg, for example, has found that ecstatic experiences involve the emotional processing areas of the brain. Well, no shit! How is that useful, besides as a way of getting sceptical scientists to take ecstasy seriously?

The third driver the authors outline is pharmacological – particularly the ‘psychedelic renaissance’ today. No arguments there, though again it’s very very early days in the research. And the fourth driver is technological. New technology makes ecstasy more widely available than ever before, they argue. For example? New amplification technology makes music concerts better. In the old days it was just the Grateful Dead, now we have huge EDM festivals. Uh huh. And new skis make powder skiiing easier. Right….I’m not entirely convinced. Just because electric guitars are more advanced now than the 60s, doesn’t mean people play them better than Hendrix did, or that the experience of the audience is more intense than it was at Monterey or Woodstock (who really thinks that?) It’s partly the shock of the new that creates the ecstatic – the shock of, say, the first use of the Roland 303 in acid house.  I’d say humans are constantly inventing new technologies and scripts for ecstasy, from cave paintings to virtual reality. Our age has developed some new scripts, but so did every age before us.

I also think that, like many secular psychologists and neuroscientists, the authors don’t entirely get the connection between ecstasy and ritual. Like Sam Harris, they’re impatient with ritual, which is all woo-woo. They want an entirely stripped-down, rationalist, flick-of-a-switch mechanistic ecstasy, one liberated from middle-men. Wheal says:

For folks who have mythological or mystical explanations and assumed [ecstasy] came from grace or adherence to religion, we can say, here are the mechanisms. It cuts out the middlemen, the priest class, those who presume to tell us how to get it. This is our human birthright. Mystical experiences can be demystified and we can create them a hell of a lot more often than when people are bowing and scraping to Mecca.

Kumbh Mela. Low-tech ecstasy

Never mind the casual insult to 1.6 billion Muslims, this fails to understand the power of rituals – including pilgrimages – to bring us to ecstasy. You think westerners now have more ecstasy than ever before? Compared to the Middle Ages? Compared to, say, Indian culture today? OK, Burning Man now attracts thousands and thousands of people…The Kumbh Mela in India attracted 120 million people in 2013, and they had no more technology than tents, chillums, bhang and a river. And what the Sixties showed us is you can do away with the ‘middlemen’ of Christianity, but often new middle-men rise up – gurus, artists, politicians, rockstars, dare I say it, even self-help coaches, who ‘presume’ to tell us how to find ecstasy and what it means.

I also think the authors miss out an important cultural driver for why we are talking about ecstatic / spiritual experiences today. The main reason, I think, is the decline of organized religion in the west. This has created a large group of ‘nones’ or ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’, who are just as hungry for spiritual experiences, perhaps even hungrier than before. Hence the fact that, while attendance at church is going down, the number of people who say they have had spiritual or mystical experience in the US and UK is going up.

But a spirituality based on ecstatic experiences and detached from moral dogma and community can mean we become overly attached to them, we fetishize them, we make them the goal of the journey, rather than something which may or may not happen along the way. So what then is a more appropriate goal? Love and awakening to our true selves, I would say. Transhumanists, life-hackers and human potential coaches always speak of ‘peak performance’, and rarely about love, vulnerability, openness.  ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.’

Having said that, there’s much that I agree with in Kotler and Wheal’s analysis, particularly their insight that the internet has allowed an open-source big data approach to ecstasy, a ‘crowd-sourced Bible’ – the exact phrase Ive used in my book! I didn’t copy you, guys, I swear. I’ll definitely give the full book a read when it’s out later this month.