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The Shadow

The Transpersonal Revolution: meditation, psychedelics, psychosis

One of the main insights of last year, for me, was that meditation and psychedelics are two useful spiritual practices that work well together. Meditation sharpens certain cognitive and emotional tools (concentration, acceptance, compassion) which help one ride the waves of psychedelic consciousness. It also helps you to integrate the insights you get from your psychedelic experiences, in the weeks and months afterwards, so as to turn altered states into altered traits.

At the ayahuasca retreat I went on in October, at a place called the Temple of the Way of Light near Iquitos, in Peru, we were encouraged to develop our meditation practice in the months leading up to the retreat, and if possible to do a Vipassana retreat. I went on a 10-day Vipassana retreat in 2016, and then a week-long Zen retreat in 2017, and they both really helped me to navigate the stormy seas of ayahuasca.

Even when I was buen mareado (which can be loosely translated as ‘properly mullahd’), I found I could still remember and practice certain spiritual attitudes: sit up straight, focus on your breath, practice self-compassion and acceptance.

At one particularly intense moment, I forgot who I was or where I was, and felt myself adrift in another dimension totally beyond my comprehension (this is quite common on ayahuasca). I had a deep sense of dread, a sense that I was way out of my head and would never come back. But even there, I could still remember to practice my tools. I had two cards I could play: firstly, accept what’s arising, and secondly, remind myself that everything passes. And it did. I came back into my body, remembered my name, remembered where I was and why I was there. 

Psychedelics and meditation are two of the most exciting fields in psychology and psychiatry. Mindfulness, as you know, has become a huge field of research and has transformed western mental health in the last decade. Psychedelic therapy has been tipped as the most promising new development in psychiatry by Tom Insell, the former head of the US National Institute of Mental Health.

Both psychedelics and meditation are rapidly spreading in our culture. Around 15% of Westerners practice some form of meditation, like yoga, mindfulness, Vipassana or Transcendental Meditation. The use of psychedelics is also on the rise – LSD use among young people grew by 175% among young people in England and Wales between 2013 and 2015.

We’re in the middle of not just a ‘mindfulness revolution’ or a ‘psychedelic renaissance’, but rather a transpersonal revolution. The ideas of transpersonal psychology, once considered marginal and kooky, are becoming mainstream, and transforming our ideas of the self, society and reality.

Transpersonal psychology can be roughly defined as the study of human development beyond the everyday ego (hence ‘transpersonal’), including a positive understanding of spiritual experiences (also called peak experiences, transcendent experiences, altered states of consciousness, flow states, self-transcendent experiences and so on). The field is more open to the possibilities of what one encounters beyond the self – the collective mind, spirits, God – and more open to the possibility of life after death.

It began with William James and Frederic Myers in the 1890s, developed with Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley in the 1930s-1950s, and flourished in the 1960s through figures like Abraham Maslow, Stanislaf Grof, Timothy Leary and Ram Dass.

It’s become much more mainstream in academic psychology today partly because neuroscience has given a new credibility to the study of consciousness and to fields like contemplative science and psychedelic science, and partly because baby-boomer hippies and 90s ex-ravers are now in positions of power in academia, and they’re much more open to a transpersonal perspective through their own spiritual practice. 

The transpersonal revolution is transforming our idea of the self. We’re discovering that the self is malleable, as Epictetus put it – we can rewire our habitual beliefs and behaviour through practices.   We’re discovering the importance of focus, attention and acceptance in dealing with thoughts and emotions moment to moment, and the possibility of training attention through meditation. We’re realizing William James was right – rational analytical consciousness is just one type of consciousness among many, and other types of consciousness also have their role and can be helpful in healing and bonding.

We’re recognizing the stable conscious ego is a construction, and that there is much bigger self – largely subconscious – which one discovers through dreams, contemplation and psychedelics. We’re realizing the importance of belief, faith and ritual in unlocking the placebo or ‘healing response’ in the subconscious. We’re realizing the importance of the body in processing, storing and releasing emotions and trauma – mainstream psychology ignored the body for a long time. Yes, the early psychoanalysts talked about hysterical symptoms in the body, but their cure was always talking, not yoga, healing touch, dancing or psychedelic puking. 

Beyond that, we’re moving towards the idea that beneath our transient ego-beliefs there is a luminous open awareness, which we can move into and stay within. And this awareness can be a space of acceptance, equanimity, and love. People seem to reach this space through contemplation, through psychedelics, through near-death experiences. And this space – call it the heart-mind – seems connected to other beings or energies, in ways we don’t yet understand and that don’t fit into materialist psychology.

We’re also realizing that Jung was right – there’s a big Jung revival happening as a consequence of the transpersonal revolution. Jung (and other early pioneers, like Myers and Flournoy) understood how the subconscious speaks through myths, symbols and fairy-tales, which are sometimes shared. He (and others) also understood that not everything in the subconscious is flowers and bunny rabbits. Our constructed egos have a shadow – all the things we think we must hide or repress, all the things we push away and run from in fear and aversion. That shadow comes up in spiritual practices.

In contemplative science, for example, Brown University’s Varieties of Contemplative Experience project has explored the difficult experiences people often encounter in meditation, particularly the return of repressed thoughts and emotions. Psychedelic therapists also routinely draw on Jung’s idea of the return of the shadow.

In both contemplative science and psychedelic science, researchers are finding that Jung was right – the best way to deal with the shadow is through patience, acceptance and compassionate investigation. Rather than running away in terror, we can say: ‘welcome, come in, sit down, let me get to know you’. We remind ourselves of an acronym like RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Nourish. Then, after a few minutes, years or decades, the unwanted, frightening and daemonic part of us becomes transformed into an ally and helper, just as the Buddha transformed the terrifying snake nagas into his allies and protectors (as in the statue above from Sala Keoku in Thailand). 

But the journey from awakening to integration and realization is no picnic. It’s no walk in the park. Well…it is, but only if we’re talking Central Park at night, filled with zombies and anacondas. The spiritual journey is a journey beyond the ego, a journey through the ego’s death. The shadow is a very good fence holding the ego up – on it is a big sign saying ‘do NOT go beyond here’, and scary monsters jump out at you if you do. Go beyond that fence and your ego screams ‘I’m going to die!’ Which it is, eventually.

The transpersonal revolution is leading to a rise in ‘spiritual crises’

Now here is the key point I want to emphasise. As more and more people meditate and take psychedelics, more and more people are also reporting spiritual or mystical experiences (see the results from Gallup on the right). And some of those experiences will be quasi-psychotic spiritual crises.

We think ‘oh, peak experiences, flow experiences, sure, great, I’ll upgrade myself and become a super-person. Bring it on.’ That’s how our culture thinks of flow states, because we’re so hung up on performance and productivity. And sometimes they’re lovely. But sometimes they’re deeply disorientating, and mess with our normal ego-functioning. And they should!

This much was noted by Ram Dass (or Richard Alpert as he was known at Harvard), who has been so helpful to me and our culture in navigating these waters. He noted, back in the mid-70s, that while more and more Americans responded in a survey that they’d had a mystical experience, the majority added they never wanted another one! ‘They upset the apple-cart of our ordered reality’, he says, in this excellent talk.

The area of spiritual crises was brilliantly explored in a collection of essays edited by Stanslaf and Christina Grof, called Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, which they published in 1989. The Grofs write in the introduction: ‘As various Oriental and Western spiritual disciplines are rapidly gaining popularity, more and more people seem to be having transpersonal crises – yet another reason that the correct understanding and treatment of spiritual emergencies is an issue of ever-increasing importance.’

Spiritual awakenings can involve temporary psychotic phenomena like mania, ego-inflation, Messiah complexes, seeing patterns and significance in everything, intense energy and sleeplessness, physical anomalies like shaking or twitching, loss of critical thinking and a tendency to embrace one’s intuitions as the absolute truth, a flooding of dream-material from the subconscious, the return of repressed trauma, a merging of dream and reality, paranoia and persecutory complexes, and a general disordering of one’s usual reality and sense of the boundaries of the self.

The personal ego is a fiction, but it’s a fiction we’ve clung to all our lives, perhaps for thousands and thousands of lives. Waking up to the emptiness of the ego, the power of the Higher Self, and the interconnectedness of all things can be wildly euphoric, or utterly terrifying.

Contemplative science, which is about 20 years ahead of psychedelic science, is already grappling with this fact. Having gone through a decade of unremitting positivity and hype around meditation (it heals depression, it heals anxiety, it improves productivity etc etc etc), there is now more research pointing out that sometimes, people on retreats have very scary, difficult experiences, which can last weeks, months or years. Psychedelic research is still in the era of unremitting hype (psychedelics can cure depression, anxiety, addiction, improve productivity etc etc etc), and is still somewhat in denial about the dark side of psychedelics. But it’s there.

What I noticed in other participants and in myself, on the ayahuasca retreat, was a loss of the ability to critique or reflect on what the medicine / subconscious was telling us. People became much more prone to unusual beliefs and magical thinking. Our whole model of reality – based around the everyday ego – was dissolved. This was hugely healing, and opened up a joyful vision of interconnectedness, play and even immortality. But people could also believe some crazy stuff.

One of the shaman said to us at the beginning of the retreat: ‘The medicine is a poet, it speaks in metaphors’. But, like fundamentalists, we would sometimes seize on the metaphors presented to us as the actual literal truth. ‘I saw the future, I am the pilot of an interstellar spaceship’. ‘I realized my father isn’t actually my father’. ‘I need to build a giant pyramid in the jungle to communicate with aliens’ (this last one was a vision by an IT engineer called Julian Haynes – he built the pyramid, then it fell down. Classic Werner Herzog stuff. But still, quite a vision!)

These insights might be spiritual metaphors rather than the literal truth.

People often think they are about to die on ayahuasca. This is mistaking temporary ego dissolution for permanent actual death. Or we might even think the world is about to end – again, the psychic and spiritual death-and-rebirth is misinterpreted as a literal apocalypse.

As Chris Kilham, author of The Ayahuasa Test Pilot Handbook, puts it:

Ayahuasca and other psychedelics can deliver positive, transformative benefits. But they can also set the mind afire with lavish, nonsensical ideas. Most common is the notion of discovering that you, yes YOU! will save the planet. You wont. This is just the same old messy messianic thinking that has never worked and never will. For if there is to be a new, more free and conscious world, we will need not one, but several billon messiahs, each selflessly pulling together for the whole of humanity and planetary welfare.

In the meantime, we have only begun to see the Age Of The Kooks. As more people drink ayahuasca, there will be more visionary fallout. People will decide to undergo rapid and regrettable sex changes. They will ink themselves from head to toe, like Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man. They will bellow revelations from building tops and get whisked away to secure cells. It is all going to happen. In the great and fabulous circus that is the explosion of ayahuasca into the public mind, every freaky, awkward, bizarre and outright nutso scenario that can play out, will.

In my own case, for three or four days after the retreat, when I was travelling on my own in Ecuador, I had the overwhelming sense that I was in a dream. I began to think the external world was being generated by my memory-imagination – the streets, the cars, the other people, the hotel, the sky, it was all my dream. My subconscious was constructing the people, the traffic, the planes, the sky. I didn’t know how to wake up, and how to return to the dimension where my loved ones were. So I travelled back from South America to the UK – a very strange few days in planes and airports. I was amazed at the ability of my subconscious to construct such a vivid reality – the 747 was so big, the KLM air-stewards were so Dutch!

Finally I got home, where my friends gave me a lot of hugs, and within a few days I decided this reality was real. I would still get moments of panic and ontological uncertainty, but I could practice my tools – slow breathing, acceptance, reminding myself that everything passes – and I would calm down and ride the waves. I realized the same spiritual tools worked – focus, acceptance, compassion – no matter how altered my mind or the reality I was in.

What I think happened was I took a spiritual insight – this reality is a dream constructed by our egos – and interpreted it literally – this is all my dream, and no one else is real. I managed to walk through that experience and keep calm. But if I’d panicked, and not had any spiritual training or a community of loving friends to take care of me for a few days, there’s a chance I’d have been sectioned, and even diagnosed as suffering from a life-long biological condition requiring a life-time of medication.

This sort of weird experience provokes so much fear in ourselves and other people. We’ve managed to overcome some of the stigma around depression and anxiety. But psychosis? We still find it terrifying. It is the nightmare Other of our rationalist society. In other cultures, there is still a sense that psychosis can have a meaning and a message for mainstream society, and that it’s a temporary place one may sometimes go to beyond the ordinary ego, rather than a lifetime exile to the rubbish heap of society. In our culture, psychiatry usually denies it any meaning or message, beyond a permanent brain disorder.

We need to have compassion for ourselves and each other, and compassion for those having transpersonal experiences where the boundaries of their ego are temporarily disordered. Such people are unlikely to fit into civilized conventions for a while, and we may need to be patient with them – in my case, for a few days, I literally needed help crossing the road, because I wasn’t sure if the cars were real. Experienced guides can help to steer people through their experiences so that they’re positive. And the rest of us can see these experiences as potentially pointing to something incredibly valuable and true – the ego is a fiction, reality is a hallucination, we are God…or something different to what we think, anyway.

Dougie / Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks – people in transpersonal moments may have difficulty navigating ordinary reality

One of the most interesting people I met this year was someone called Anthony Fidler, who helped to run the Zen retreat I went on in India. I watched him occasionally during the silent retreat, and thought, ‘wow, what a calm, collected person, that’s exactly what I want to be like when I practice more diligently’.

After the retreat, I got talking to him, and heard his story. He’d gone to Cambridge, trained to be an accountant, then had a breakdown, leading to psychotic episodes in his 30s. Over the last decade, he has taught himself to manage his occasional moments of psychosis / unusual states of consciousness through spiritual practices, particularly breath-work, touch practices, and self-compassion. He’s also been helped by leaving the UK and travelling to cultures like India and China, where this sort of spiritual awakening is more accepted and less pathologized by the culture at large. 

Part of the transpersonal revolution needs to be an upgrading of our psychiatric healthcare system and our cultural attitudes so that we have better understanding and compassion for those going through temporary quasi-psychotic / spiritual awakenings, so we don’t immediately section them, pump them full of drugs, and label them as sufferers of life-long biological disorders called things like ‘bipolar’, ‘schizophrenia’ and so on.

Clearly there are some people who have mental disorders that require medication, and some people need to be institutionalized for a few weeks, months or even years for their safety and the safety of others. But psychiatrists have been far too quick to impose their own version of reality onto the most vulnerable people in our society, even though that version of reality is spiritually bereft.

Luckily we are already seeing changes in mental healthcare, driven by the transpersonal revolution. I wrote about some of these changes in The Art of Losing Control, in which I applauded the work of David Lukoff to get a new disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual called ‘religious or spiritual problem’ – ie a temporary spiritual stage rather than a lifelong biological condition. I applauded the work of the Hearing Voices Network, which supports people who might hear voices or see visions, including many people who are not hospitalized or on medication. I applauded the Spiritual Crisis Network, and the Spiritual Emergence Network, and I urge you all to read Spiritual Emergency by the Grofs.

Meditation, psychedelics, psychosis – the three are linked, all involving journeys beyond the fiction of the everyday ego. You see worried articles in the Daily Mail: can mindfulness lead to psychosis? Yes it can. Psychedelics can also lead to temporary psychosis, and in some sad cases it seems to trigger life-long psychosis in teenagers. However, with care and compassion and wisdom, the majority of these sorts of psychotic experiences can be temporary, and lead to positive outcomes.

The spiritual journey is not entirely safe. It’s not a linear journey into greater and greater serenity and happiness – this is one of the mistakes the West has made by reinterpreting spiritual practices like meditation in terms of this-world happiness. They weren’t designed to make the ego happy. They were designed to transcend the ego. And the ego does not want to be transcended. There’s an enormous amount of fear, clinging, pride and suffering that arises on the spiritual journey. That doesn’t mean we should be put off. If we don’t go on the journey, we’ll still suffer, but we”ll suffer in a circle, pointlessly, rather than suffering while advancing towards liberation. Go forward with boldness and hope, with kindness and humble curiosity. 

Can psychedelics make you a better person?

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Back in the 1960s, many people thought psychedelics would save the world. Professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now called Ram Dass) of Harvard University had a graph on their office wall, showing how long they thought it would take the entire human race to take LSD and become enlightened.

Psychedelics, it was believed, would save humanity – particularly Western civilization – from its spiritual emptiness, its ignorance of the inner life, its ego-grasping, and its relentless consumerism, conflict and environmental devastation.  Terrence McKenna declared, in the 1990s: ‘suppression of shamanic gnosis, with its reliance and insistence on ecstatic dissolution of the ego, has robbed us of life’s meaning and made us enemies of the planet, of ourselves, and of our grandchildren. We are killing the planet in order to keep intact the wrong-headed assumptions of the ego-dominator cultural style’.

There is a strong claim here that has never been tested: can psychedelics make you a better person? Can they raise humanity’s consciousness and improve society?

There have been studies suggesting psychedelics make people more open-minded, which is ‘good’ in some circumstances, less so in others. Several studies have shown psychedelics can help people overcome addiction. Other studies suggest psychedelics help people heal from depression, by releasing them from rumination and opening their attention up to the world and relationships with others. Some studies suggest psychedelics give us a deeper sense of connection to one another and to nature. And psychedelics seem to reliably trigger mystical-type experiences in Westerners, where they feel connected to God, Universal Consciousness or something, and this makes them less anxious and more open. 

All of these could arguably be presented as moral improvements – depending on your moral philosophy. You could argue that if a change in one’s personality is caused by a chemical interacting with your subconscious, that’s not really a moral improvement, because it’s beyond your conscious will or choice (one could say the same of God’s grace). But with both types of mystical experience, they are usually not enough on their own. As Ram Dass says, we probably have to put in some hard work after the vision to turn the altered state into altered traits.

Still, no study, as far as I’m aware, has tried to ascertain if psychedelics can help make someone a better person. It’s difficult to define and measure such a broad, holistic concept. Research into mindfulness faces the same problem. As philosopher Owen Flanagan explored in his book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain, there’s a lot of confusion about what exactly contemplative science has ‘proved’. Research suggests that certain meditative practices may improve mood and alter the brain in some ways. But that’s a long way from proving what the Buddha claimed – that following the dharma would make you a better person and ultimately liberate you from the illusion of the self.

How could one scientifically test whether someone has morally improved?  The Dalai Lama said: ‘To know what’s in a person’s heart you need clairvoyance. Or you need to spy on them closely for, say, a year, to see how they behave.’ That’s doable in a monastery, harder in an academic research lab. You can at least ask participants whether they feel meditation (or psychedelics) has improved their moral behaviour, and then ask their friends if they agree. But of course, they and their friends might have a different definition of ‘moral’ to you.

What I’m going to do in this brief essay is examine this question from the perspective of cultural history, and look at whether cultures which used psychedelic rituals believed they improved moral character. I will look at the Eleusinian Mysteries in ancient Greece, and at contemporary Amazon shamanic cultures.

The Eleusinian Mysteries

The most sacred festival in ancient Greece was the Eleusinian Mysteries, which took place at Eleusis outside Athens every September. They were celebrated for around 2000 years, until 392 AD, when the Christian emperor Theodosius closed them down, thereby depriving the west of psychedelic therapy for 1600 years. As Carl Jung lamented: ‘what a lack of psychic hygiene characterizes our culture, which no longer knows the kind of wholesome experience afforded by the Eleusinian Mysteries’.

The Mysteries were extremely secret, so we don’t know precisely what occurred. But we do know the Mysteries worshipped Demeter, goddess of corn, and told the story of the abduction of her daughter Prosperpine by Hades. This abduction made Demeter withdraw in grief and anger, and the world withered into a wasteland. The Mysteries were thought of as a way of placating Demeter and reconnecting humans to nature, and to each other. They also gave initiates the ‘hope of a blessed afterlife’, long before Jesus freed us from death. 

What do we know of the initiation process? First, there was a moral preparation – initiates underwent a fast (no beans or birds), and a pilgrimage to Eleusis. They washed themselves and put on white robes. In contemporary terms, they set their intention. This moral preparation was absolutely key, according to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

The benefit of the Mysteries depends on proper place and time: one must approach with sacrifice and prayer, with body purified and mind ready and disposed to approach holy rites and ancient sanctities. Only so do the Mysteries bring benefit, only so do we arrive at the belief that all these things were established by those of old for our education and the amendment of our life.

When they arrived at Eleusis, the initiates drank a potion called a kykeon. Some academics (Albert Hoffman and Gordon Wasson) have speculated this potion contained ergot, a fungus that grows on corn and which contains a form of LSD. Then the initiates embarked on a terrifying descent to the underworld, where they suffered various ordeals, and finally emerged into light. They witnessed some sort of sacred marriage, and the birth of a divine child. And they came away with faith that they would return to this divine realm when they died.

This is the account of Plutarch, who besides being a philosopher and historian was also a priest at Eleusis:

At first there are wanderings, and toilsome running about in circles and journeys through the dark over uncertain roads and culs de sac; then, just before the end, there are all kinds of terrors, with shivering, trembling, sweating, and utter amazement. After this, a strange and wonderful light meets the wanderer; he is admitted into clean and verdant meadows, where he discerns gentle voices, and dances, and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions. Here the now fully initiated is free, and walks at liberty…he is the companion of pure and holy men, and looks down upon the uninitiated and unpurified crowd below in the mud and fog, trampling itself down and crowded together, still sunk in the evils of death, unable to believe in the blessings that lie beyond. 

It’s worth briefly comparing this to the account of a participant in a 2014 trial that gave LSD to people with life-threatening cancer:

It was just really black…I was afraid, shaking…It was total exhaustion…like an endless marathon…Suddenly a phase of relaxation came…It became bright. Everything was light…It was really gorgeous…The key experience is when you get from dark to light.

The initiates’ near-death experience may have influenced Greek philosophy, particularly Plato’s description of the soul’s journey through multiple lives in order to learn moral lessons. But their psychedelic faith in the afterlife could just be delusion. And does this faith actually make one a better person here on Earth, or just a smug git?

There are some classical accounts that suggest the Mysteries were thought to improve moral behaviour. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the first century BC, wrote:

The claim is also made that men who have taken part in the Mysteries become both more pious and more just and better in every respect than they were before. And this is the reason, we are told, why the most famous of the ancient heroes and the demi-gods were eagerly desirous of taking part in the initiatory rite; and in fact Jason and the Dioscuri, and Heracles and Orpheus as well, after their initiation attained success in all the campaigns they undertook, because these gods appeared to them.

So the Mysteries supposedly made one more pious and better fighters – you believe the Gods are on your side and immortality awaits. Well, you could say the same of Jihadis or Viking Berserkers.

We should point out that many of the great moral philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome were initiates at Eleusis – including Socrates, Plato, Plutarch, Cicero and the emperor Marcus Aurelius – and seemed to think highly of the experience. Cicero wrote:

Among the many excellent and indeed divine institutions which your Athens has brought forth…none is better than the Mysteries. For by their means we have been brought out of our barbarous and savage mode of life and educated and refined to a state of civilization; and as the rites are called ‘initiations’, so in very truth we have learned from them the beginnings of life, and have gained the power not only to live happily, but also to die with a better hope.

Praise indeed – the Mysteries helped civilize humanity and give us the power to live happily and die with a better hope. Do psychedelics make us better people? Cicero clearly thought the Mysteries did.

Aristotle writes rather little about the Mysteries, but he does say that he thought ecstatic cults have an important role to play in a healthy society because, like theatre, they offer people a form of catharsis, which can be translated as ‘purgation’. Ecstatic cults help people in civilized societies purge themselves of their inner angst, restlessness, fear and grief. In Jungian terms, you could say that ecstatic cults like the Mysteries help civilized people take off their masks and confront their shadow – all the wild and painful emotions they repress in the name of civility.  Aristotle seems to see the Mysteries as a form of physical-emotional therapy – a fragment suggests he said that initiates did not so much learn as suffer. The Mysteries were not a rational lecture, but a full-bodied immersive emotional experience. Others emphasize the emotional journey of the initiation – Aristeides writes: ‘the mystics were made to experience the most blood-curdling sensations of horror and the most enthusiastic ecstasy of joy’.

So you could say that the Mysteries, like some contemporary psychedelic experiences, guided people on an emotional journey, which taught them certain moral-emotional attitudes: courage, steadfastness, acceptance and surrender, and above all, humility, wonder and piety. The individual ego is dissolved and one’s awareness stands in awe before the divine. This is Plutarch again:

persons who are being initiated into the Mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting, and jostle one another, but when the holy rites are being performed and disclosed the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence.

Initiates then emerge feeling joyfully re-connected to nature, to the gods, and to one another. They call each other brother and sister, and are filled with eunoia, good will, the opposite of paranoia. I think this joyful and direct experience of interconnectedness may have informed Greek philosophy, particularly the Stoic idea of the Logos, the divine intelligence which connects all things in the universe together.  Certain passages of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations seem to me psychedelic insights – some academics suggest they may have been opium dreams, but they sound a lot more psychedelic to me. He writes:

Frequently consider the connection of all things in the Universe. … all things that come to pass, exist simultaneously in the one and entire unity, which we call the Universe. … We should not say ‘I am an Athenian’ or ‘I am a Roman’ but ‘I am a Citizen of the Universe’.

Or again:

The world is a living being – one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. How everything is absorbed into this one consciousness, how a single impulse governs all its actions, and how everything helps produce everything else – spun and woven together .

Or again:

Everything is interwoven in a sacred bond. None of its parts are disconnected. They are arranged in their proper place. There is one orderly, graceful disposition of the whole. There is one God in the whole. There is one substance, one law, and one reason common to all intelligent beings. And one truth. There is a sort of perfection to all beings, who are of the same nature, who share the same logos 

Such passages will strike a chord with anyone who has undergone a mystical experience on magic mushrooms, LSD or ayahuasca. Is it so far-fetched to suggest this transcendent vision of cosmic interconnectedness was the result of Marcus’ own psychedelic initiations?

And these visions weren’t just a ‘trip’ – they deeply informed Stoic ethics, and the idea of accepting the will of the Logos, serving the spark of the Logos within one with right thought and action, and honouring the Logos in everyone else by treating them with dignity. A psychedelic vision of interconnectedness is joined to a practical ethics. Indeed, in Plutarch and Pythagoras’ case, the ethics of interconnectedness extends as far as being vegetarian and treating animals with care, which was very unusual in the classical world.

We can conclude, then, that several Greek and Roman moral philosophers had a high opinion of the Mysteries, which I believe centred around a psychedelic experience. They seemed to think the Mysteries helped people become more moral, by guiding them on an immersive emotional journey which taught them piety, steadfastness, courage, wonder, reverence, eunoia or friendliness, and a sense of the interconnectedness of all things. What we don’t know is, firstly, if the Mysteries really did reliably do this, and secondly, whether this was the result of the psychedelic drug by itself, or the cultural conditions around the drug.

Ayahuasca cults in the Upper Amazon

I’m now going to discuss the taking of ayahuasca among mestizo tribes in the Upper Amazon, and whether ayahuasca is thought to make one a better person. I will keep it brief, as I don’t yet know much about this. 

The first thing I want to say is there is a big difference in the cultural and moral expectations that Westerners bring to ayahuasca, and the cultural and moral expectations that mestizo Indians apparently bring (according to my reading). We really live in completely different moral and cosmological worlds, and its naive to think that ayahuasca somehow takes us to their world, teaches us their moral wisdom, or connects us to some transcendent realm beyond our culture. Rather, ayahuasca reflects your own expectations, intentions and values back to you.

The centres where westerners go to take ayahuasca tend to sell them a western-friendly version of what ayahuasca does. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby writes that Amazonian shamans ‘are psychologically perceptive and many have adapted intelligently to their new customers. Mimicry is second nature to them. Just as Amazonian hunters learn to sing the melodies of the birds they hunt, Amazonian shamans learn to speak the language that their Western clients understand and want to hear’.

In October, I went to The Temple of the Way of Light in Peru, which is owned by Westerners and employs Shipibo Indian shamans. It sells ayahuasca in very Western terms. In a preparation document which all participants were sent before the ceremony, one reads:

Ayahuasca is a powerful cleansing and purifying medicine that can rid the body of physical impurities, the mind and body of emotional blockages and self-limiting fear-filled patterns that have accumulated over a lifetime, as well as retrieve fragmented aspects of one’s soul due to past traumatic events. The medicine is also a teacher who initiates or accelerates us into a lifelong journey of continual self-discovery, deep personal transformation and remembrance of the divine within us all.

This is clearly presented as a moral journey – we will learn the values of Western New Age spirituality:

The Temple’s ayahuasca retreats are an opportunity to rebalance, cleanse and learn about your true self. You will need personal integrity and courage as you will face the whole of your self, including ‘shadow aspects’…We are deeply committed to providing a safe and caring environment to support you in anything that might arise. During and after the process, perseverance, courage, a strong will, and patience all significantly facilitate the healing journey. The results are highly beneficial with the end goal to come back into alignment with our true nature, find balance between our heart and mind, balance between our sub-conscious, conscious and super-conscious selves, and to reawaken self-respect, self-worth and ultimately, self-love.

Like the initiates of Eleusis, we were told to prepare our moral intention by fasting for at least two weeks before the retreat – no pork, booze, sex, drugs, TV and so on. We were encouraged to meditate as much as possible, to practice the mindfulness, steadfastness, self-acceptance and compassion we’d need on the psychedelic journey. And we were told to prepare ourselves to purge out our emotional problems through vomiting and so forth – it’s very similar to Aristotelian catharsis, in that respect. 

Now, even though the Temple employs Shipibo shamans, even though they are revered as the main guides and sources of wisdom, we were told very little about how they understand ayahuasca. We had one talk from a Shibipo shaman on the first day, who kept it very vague, telling us the medicine is a poet, who speaks in metaphors, and who works on our head and our heart. That was it. Everything else they communicated to us was through the beautiful songs they sang during the ceremonies.

The Western participants made sense of our experiences ourselves, somewhat guided by the Western facilitators (although they never imposed a particular dogma). We had discussions about what exactly we were encountering – plant spirits, aliens, ancestors, God, our higher self? The general vibe was this was a journey of love, light and healing.

I had very much the sort of experience one would expect a Western, educated, spiritual seeker to have. I encountered my shadow, faced my fears, gained insights into my identity and interpersonal relationships. The medicine fitted well with my existing spiritual practice – the trips taught me the value of Buddhist spiritual tools like staying in the moment, staying conscious of one’s body, practicing compassion, and reminding oneself that all things pass. The medicine reflected back to me the intention and values I brought, and helped me to embody them. It’s only been two months, but I hope it’s helped change me in the way I wanted to change. 

When I returned to the UK, I was naturally curious to know how the tribes of the Upper Amazon themselves understood ayahuasca. I read, for example, The Ayahuasca Experience: A Sourcebook on the Sacred Vine of Spiritsedited by Ralph Metzner. But this book focuses almost entirely on Westerners’ experience of ayahuasca. And again, it’s obvious that the medicine brings people what they expect – a Buddhist has a very Buddhist trip, a Jewish man feels re-connected to his Jewish heritage. I wanted to know how mestizo tribes understood ayahuasca. They’ve been taking it for centuries, after all. Do they think it makes us better people? If so, how?

I finally came across a book which I’ve been reading this week, called Singing to Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon, by Stephan Beyer, a scholar who lived among mestizo Indian tribes and was initiated by two shamans. Religious studies scholar Erik Davis calls it ‘the best book on ayahuasca’, and it’s certainly the best I’ve read on how mestizo Amazons make sense of it.

The main thing I learned is this: the mestizos of the Upper Amazon think almost all illnesses, accidents and deaths are caused by sorcery. Ayahuasca is a medicine to cure people from magical attacks, and a weapon to assist attacks (including love-spells). These are the two main things ayahuasca is used for, according to mestizo Indians.

This is so different to the Western understanding of ‘Mama Ayahuasca’ as this cosmic universal healer showing us our ‘true self’, guiding us like a loving Jungian therapist to the blockages in our subconscious, helping us realize we’re actually a super-talented artist or botanist or what-have-you. No. For mestizo Indians, ayahuasca helps you realize which of your neighbours has cursed you, and it helps you get revenge.

The culture of Upper Amazon mestizos, Beyer tells us, is riddled with envidia, or envy. People don’t have much money or resources, they live very closely to one another, they gossip a lot, and they are quick to envy those who have more or do better than them. The principle motive for magical attacks is envidia. When something bad happens to you, you go to a shaman to find out who is behind the attack, to cure yourself, and perhaps to get revenge. Shamans are also constantly attacking each other, out of envy. Sorcery is a form of redress for the powerless, in a culture which prefers to avoid direct confrontation.

Does ayahuasca make you a better person? It can do, according to mestizo Indians. Shamans call it a teacher, a guide, which can show them where someone is hurt, where they have been attacked, what they need to get better. But the spirit of ayahuasca is not necessarily and essentially ‘good’. It depends what intention you bring to it. There are curanderas (healers) who study with the plant to help cure people. But there are also brujos (sorcerers), who study to learn how to seduce, get rich, dominate, harm and kill. The path to becoming a sorcerer is apparently quicker and easier than the path to become a healer.

Jeremy Narby notes:

Westerners often approach drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon knowing little about its cultural context. If we take seriously what indigenous Amazonians say, it has a dark side, which they call sorcery or witchcraft. Much of the work that shamans do in their communities involves countering bewitchment. It is striking that when ayahuasca is imported into Western countries, there is no mention of witchcraft and everything seems to be about light and healing.

Indeed, the Temple of the Way of Light mentions nothing about ayahuasca sorcery in its preparatory literature (the tourists would run a mile!) Beyer’s book is noticeably absent from its list of recommended reading. In a discussion before our first ceremony, I asked the western facilitators about the possibility of attack by bad spirits – after all, 50% of ayahuasca-takers in the global ayahuasca survey said that at some point they felt under spiritual attack. I was told, don’t worry, that’s all taken care of by the shamans, they will protect you.

One facilitator did say to me at lunch one day: ‘The medicine can feed your ego. It gives you what you want. You can see which maestros are full of ego. Some shamans want power, sex, status, control, glory. You can get into black magic that way.’ I felt that one of the members in our group was there to acquire power, and was in danger of going down that black road. Should there be a health warning for ayahuasca – beware the dark path?

The shamanic path in Beyer’s description sounds rather like the path of the ring-bearer in Lord of the Rings – the bearer of power is beset by an ever-stronger temptation to use that power to dominate and harm others. Beyer writes:

There is a theme woven through the shamanisms of the Upper Amazon – that human beings in general, and shamans in particular, have powerful urges to harm other humans. The difference between a healer and a sorcerer is that the former is able to bring these urges under control, while the latter either cannot or does not want to…The spirits of the plants may offer the apprentice great powers and gifts that can cause harm. If the apprentice is weak and accepts them, he will become a sorcerer.

Apparently the ‘magic darts’ a shaman acquires can possess a will of their own, a desire to harm and kill.

Do mestizo Indians of the Upper Amazon think ayahuasca makes you more moral? No. They think it makes you more powerful. The shaman is not considered a more moral figure  – they’re a morally ambiguous, suspicious, dangerous figure, who can heal from magical attacks, but who can also kill. They play a role in a culture that, judging by Beyer’s book, sounds quite unhealthy to me, at least in so far as almost all illnesses and deaths are interpreted as magical attacks by secret envious enemies. This interpretation leads to an endless cycle of attacks and reprisals, and constant paranoia. No wonder Pablo Amaringo, the famous ayahuasca artist-shaman, got sick of this culture (after being attacked by an envious shaman) and abandoned shamanism. No wonder some tribes say ‘we have no trouble here, so we don’t need a shaman’.

An advert for a Peruvian brujo, offering spells for love, revenge and ‘caprice’

 

Now I’m not saying ayahuasca can’t be a powerful healer or teacher. It seems particularly good at what Beyer calls ‘emplotment‘ – helping people construct a story or myth of their illness and return to health: ‘I was depressed, then I went to the jungle and took ayahuasca, now I’m re-born’.  ‘The medicine is a poet’, as one of our shaman said, helping us find symbols, metaphors and a narrative arc. 

What I am saying is that ayahuasca reflects back to you the intentions, values and culture that you bring to it. If you bring New Age Jungian spirituality to it, that’s what you’ll find. If you bring a culture of envidia and sorcery, that’s what you’ll find. Ayahuasca is a consciousness-amplifier.

To conclude, I don’t think we can say that psychedelics make you a better person. Better according to what philosophy? But they can be a tool that helps you reach your cultural goals. If your goal is to become a powerful sorcerer, they can help you. If you want to become a cult leader and serial killer, like Charles Manson, they can help you. If your goal is to unlock toxic emotional patterns to discover the ‘real you’, they can help you. If your goal is to become a better Buddhist meditator or a kinder person, they can help you.

That’s why it’s very important to think about the intention we bring and the cultural context in which we take psychedelics. As they become more widely used, there is a danger of individuals or groups getting lost in dark power trips, and causing harm to themselves and other people. I actually think there is something to be said for taking ayahuasca in contexts that fuse shamanic practices with Buddhist or Christian beliefs, and with the firm intention to practice for the good of all beings, to focus on love, forgiveness and healing, not power, status, money, and revenge.

The occasional use of psychedelics can, I think, help us on the path of light and love, by teaching us concentration, self-acceptance, compassion, courage, self-awareness, humility, surrender, awe and love. But there is nothing essential in psychedelics that necessarily leads to these things. And for God’s sake, research your shaman before you place your soul in their hands. 

For more on this topic, check out Brian Earp’s article on psychedelics as moral enhancement; as well as the anthology of essays on psychedelics and meditation, Zig Zag Zen. Also follow the work of Lindsay Jordan, a philosopher at UAL researching this topic in her upcoming PhD: here she is talking at Breaking Convention about how psychedelics could transform academia.