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Paranormal

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.

The Big Dream survey

Over 500 people filled in my survey about their dreams. The results suggest people have ‘big dreams’ which they find insightful and adaptive, but such dreams are rare, and usually in times of crisis. Big dreams sometimes involve a visit from a deceased loved one.

et-moon-560Colin Ludlow was a successful TV writer in his 50s, when he went into hospital to have a tumour removed from his bowel. After the operation, he contracted pneumonia and MSRA. He spent the next month in intensive care, close to death. During that time, he had a series of very vivid dreams. He never used to recall his dreams, but he can still remember these dreams today, and felt compelled to write a book about them, Twenty Four Dreams Before Dying.

The 24 dreams were quite cinematic, slightly flowery and romantic (several of the dreams involve medieval knights or World War II heroes), and often centre around a voyage (in one, he rides a tricycle to heaven), a great undertaking, a battle. In the last dreams in the series, the battle is won and he returns home, across the sea, to the land of the living. He’s not sure what to make of the dreams, but feels they helped him to face death, and that he’s less afraid of death, more open to the possibility of an afterlife, as a result. They helped prepare him for the journey, like a pre-flight safety video.

I went to the launch of Colin’s book, and was struck by his story. Personally, I rarely remember my dreams, or find them particularly significant, except for one period of my life, when I was traumatized and my psyche was quite dissociated (ie there were traumatic memories I struggled to integrate). I had a series of dreams in which I was pursued by a terrifying tramp-figure, who was trying to kill me. In the final dream, I was in a lorry with the tramp driving, and we crashed through the side of a barrier on a cliff. I manage to pull the tramp to safety just before the lorry crashes over. I feel those dreams helped me through a crisis, by helping me recognize and accept the dissociated parts of me, which is what I take the tramp to symbolize. I also think the dreams were prophetic – a few months later, I crashed through a barrier on a cliff, while skiing, and had a near-death experience which helped to heal me of PTSD.

At Colin’s book launch, I asked the neuroscientist Chris Frith (a friend of Colin’s) whether neuroscience presently believed there is any meaning to our dreams. He said no. In fact, this is not quite true. While the old, rigid psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams is not widely accepted anymore, there are several ‘dream labs’ in universities, who have arrived at various conclusions as to why we and other animals dream. They’re now considered a form of ‘threat rehearsal‘, and also a way of solving problems and consolidating memories – when I was taking my finals, I dreamt my essay plans were assault courses over which I had to clamber.

Big Dreams

I’m still curious about the phenomenon of ‘big dreams’. Carl Jung came up with the phrase. He wrote: ‘Unlike ordinary dreams, such a dream is highly impressive, numinous, and its imagery frequently makes use of motifs analagous to or even identical with mythology.’ And a big dream may not be just about you, it could be a ‘collective mythological dream’ for your tribe.

The ‘big dream’ fits with what was known in ancient culture as ephiphany dreams, in which a god or dead person visits you and tells you some important information. Epiphany dreams were rare, and the examples passed down to us usually occur to famous leaders, with gods telling them to invade a country or establish a city. But there was a democratic culture of epiohany dreams too – you could spend the night in a dream-cave to get advice from the god Aesculapius. Galen, the great medic, says he became a doctor after Aesculapius appeared to him and also to his father in a dream.

Sebastiano Ricci’s Dream of Aesculapius (1710)

However, the ancients and medieval Christians thought that most dreams were ‘mundane’, ie caused by the body and basically meaningless, and some could come from the ivory gate of false dreams. In any case, they were not considered easy to interpret, so dream interpretation manuals were always popular, like the Atharva Veda, which is full of such pearls of wisdom as ‘If, in a dream a flat-nosed, dark, naked monk urinates, there will be rain.’

Survey results

I thought it would be interesting to ask you about your dreams. I wanted to test the hypothesis (1) that there are ‘big dreams’, ie dreams that seem unusually vivid, significant, and insightful, (2) that such dreams are rare, and (3) that they particularly occur in times of crisis and transition – like Colin in intensive care, or me struggling with PTSD, when the psyche has a lot of work to do to adapt. I would suggest that in times of crisis, particularly confrontation with death, our subconscious ‘wakes up’ and communication with the dream-world becomes more vivid.

I made a SurveyMonkey survey and sent it out via my newsletter, Facebook and Twitter, and to the members of the London Philosophy Club. I received 508 responses – thank you! Obviously there are methodological problems with this survey – the pool of respondents are probably mainly middle-class British and Americans in their 30s-70s. However, the results are still interesting.

Firstly, it’s clear that people do have dreams which they find significant and insightful (79.5% do), and that such dreams are rare – 27.8% have had less than 10 such dreams in their life, 18% said they’d had such dreams more than 10 but less than 100 times, and only 17% say they have such dreams very often.

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Secondly, as I hoped, such dreams particularly seem to occur at ‘crisis / transition / deep change’:

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And thirdly, 62% of people felt that these ‘big dreams’ had helped them adapt to that crisis:

Chart_Q3_151218What were the contents of these significant ‘big dreams’? Well, some of the replies suggest the sort of collective mythological content which Jung predicted (one lady dreamt she was a male martyr being impaled on a tree while vikings rode round her on bisons, which is…kind of mythological). A few of the ‘big dreams’ were about collective political situations – responding to the Paris attacks, for example. But not many. Most of the ‘big dreams’ people reported were about personal relationships, sometimes indicating subconscious feelings and bringing the insight that the relationship is not a goer:

Once in a relationship I was dissatisfied with, I had a dream it was the wedding day, I was at the end of the aisle with my dad about to walk down it, turned to him and said “I just can’t do it dad” and ran out of the church! Ended relationship soon after!

I would very often dream of my partner who had in the dreams the face of one of my male friends who has a more suited personality for me. It was like I couldn’t even be happy with my boyfriend in my dreams! I knew It had to stop… I broke up and immediately I felt a shift in my life and regained my joy and confidence.

Dreams about stressful work relationships and work crises were also quite common:

I was having issues at work with two people, I dreamt I was locked in a cell and they were throwing poo at me. Summed up the situation and scared me if I’m honest

Rather than the alchemical or mythological symbols Jung predicted, dreams seem to be pragmatic in their symbolism – they’ll use whatever metaphor or symbol seems to fit the situation.

In my dream I was operating on my boyfriend, taking his organs out one by one (like in operation game) and studying them to see what they told me about him. this was painful for him. when I woke up I realised this was what I was doing to him by asking questions I felt I needed the answer to (about previous relationships). I realised this was hurting him & that it wouldn’t tell me anything. this realisation enabled me to let go of this need – and helped save our relationship (for a while).

Dreams also seem to help people become aware of (and potentially change) their relationship to themselves. They will often use the metaphor of exploring a big house:

“I was in my house, and came across a door that led into a part of the house, with more rooms, that I hadn’t known was there. It was when my marriage was breaking down, and I was facing life as a single parent. I had the dream three or four times, and when I woke, it was with a sense of awareness that there were new places in my life to discover and live in, and where I would be safe and at home.”
“At times when I feel insecure, I often dream about my house being broken into. This is a recurring dream. Having done lots of research down the years, I understand that the house is symbolic, in that it represents the ‘mansion of the soul’ and or a play on words as has been my experience, where the question could be – ‘Is your house in order?'”

Another recurring metaphor is water / swimming pools / drowning / facing a storm or tsunami / crossing a river:

I dreamt I was trying to swim across the river Mersey with my friends with all my clothes on, so this made it difficult, my friends were helping he along. It was around the time I was going through an acrimonious divorce. I knew that everything would eventually turn out “all right” as my friends gave me support in my dreams and in real life.

Dreams, death and bereavement

One of the most common types of ‘big dreams’ people remembered involved meeting loved ones who have passed away –  43% of respondents said they’d met a deceased loved one in a dream, of which two thirds think this was their memory, and one third believed this was the actual loved one’s spirit visiting them:

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These spirit visitations helped people adapt to the crisis of bereavement

my father had died and I vividly met him in a dream where I felt that he was acknowledging me as a person and showing his acceptance and deep love for me 🙂

Or to adapt to an upcoming bereavement:

When my toddler nephew was dying, I had a dream of him as an infant, and there was a group of relatives / ancesters standing along a river some on one side and me and others one the other side of this very nerrow river maybe stream. On my side of the river we passed infant Mike down the row of relatives till he came to me I then gave Mikey to an ancester on the other side of this river with the understanding he was “with us now, and we will take care of him.” I woke up and I heard a disembodied voice saying “he is no longer of this earth and will be at peace now.” I knew then he wasn’t going to make it through his cancer treatment and would die. He died one or two days later.

Or sometimes the visit was simply an ancestor spirit offering support in a later crisis:

my late dad giving me a hug & telling me everything would be alright because i’m strong. This was a very bad time as i had just been diagnosed with ms. the dream was very vivid – i could see, hear & sense my dad very clearly & it left me feeling calm & comforted.

The anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor thought that dreams were the origin of religion and belief in the soul – because it feels like the soul leaves the body (33% of you say you’ve had an out of body experience while dreaming), meets the dead, and receives messages from some other dimension. People are more secular in their interpretation of dreams today, but interestingly, 47% of respondents still believed that some dreams come from God or a higher spirit:

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I also asked people if they’d ever had ‘prophetic dreams’, ie dreams about events which subsequently happened. I only thought of this question after the initial release of the survey, so the data pool is smaller (138 people), but the results are still interesting – 38.2% said they’d experienced prophetic dreams, also often about relationships:

“Soon after a new man came into my life I had a series of vivid dreams with a common theme: he was driving to pick me up and I noticed someone sitting in the rear of the car; we were in his flat and he wouldn’t listen when I said I thought someone was in the kitchen…reader, he was married and playing away from home. My dreams quite often warn me of things that I don’t want to admit consciously”

“I kept on dreaming my partner was cheating (he was)”

“Dreamt would be broken into over Christmas. Was so vivid could see their faces. Put extra locks on front door. Got robbed anyway.”

“I dreamed my late father told me I was pregnant. I took a test the following day and I was!”

“I have twice dreamt the result of a sports event, taking place the following day. One was a 5-4 win in a football penalty shootout and the other a Six Nations game. Both were correct and I won money on the second one!”

Before you jump out of bed and accuse your partner of infidelity or put £100 on Manchester City, remember the warning of the ancients – it may be a false dream from the gate of ivory!

Lucid dreaming experiences were common among respondents:

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And clearly we’re not embarrassed to discuss our dreams with others:

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Around 30% of respondents said they had some sort of ‘dream practice’ – usually trying to remember their dreams in the morning, often writing them down in a journal, and sometimes discussing them with a therapist. One person with tinnitus says she uses her dreams to manage her physical condition, while another said they can tell from their dreams when their iron level is getting too low!

What about sex? Well, Freud would say all your dreams are about sex (Jung would say they’re all about alchemy). That doesn’t seem to be the case. But there’s some transgressive sex in there – 50% of you who describe yourself as either heterosexual or homosexual said you’d dreamt of a sex experience contrary to your usual preference, which makes me wonder if we’re all bisexual or trisexual in our subconscious self. We’re not that faithful in our dreams either – according to the Montreal dream lab, women only dream of having sex with their partner 25% of the time, the rest of the time it’s sex with someone else; with men, only one sixth of their sex dreams involve their partner.

Conclusion

So, to return to my initial hypothesis, it does seem that people have ‘big dreams’ which strike them as unusually significant and insightful. Such dreams are not common for most people. They usually happen in moments of crisis and transition. They are pragmatic in their use of metaphor and symbol, using symbols that fit your situation, although there are symbols and metaphors that reoccur quite often. People find them relatively transparent in their meaning. They seem to help people adapt to the crisis. They particularly give people insights into relationships – to oneself, to loved ones, to people at work. And they quite often involve a visit from a dead loved one, which helps people adapt to loss and bereavement. Hooray for dreams!

Here, by the by, is a New York Times article looking at how dream-labs are now studying such ‘big dreams’, particularly dreams of visits by dead loved ones.