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Plotinus, Inception and the levels of the self

I’ve been reading Pierre Hadot’s book on Plotinus. It’s marvellous – only 100 pages long, yet so much wisdom and poetry in it. My favourite passage in it is when Hadot talks about the ‘levels of the self’.

Plotinus’ hierarchy of reality

Plotinus believed in what Hadot calls ‘the hierarchy of realities’: at the top of the hierarchy is the One, God, the source of everything. Then comes the ‘Nous’, the intellect or Mind which rules all things. Then comes the psyche, or soul, which connects the intelligence to the world of matter, and then finally matter. Plotinus believed that the lower stages of the hierarchy flow down or ‘emanate’ from the upper stages, becoming progressively less simple, perfect and real. They owe their existence and their reality to the One, while the One is itself simple, perfect and self-sufficient. He was the opposite of a materialist, then – he thought matter owes its existence to Mind.

I don’t completely understand this either, to be honest. But let’s press on.

Hadot tells us that these ‘levels of reality’ also refer to ‘levels of the self’. The construction of the self mirrors the construction of cosmic reality. Our selves have multiple levels – matter, the psyche (which connects body and mind), the Nous or discriminating intelligence, and finally the One, the spark of God within us. Our consciousness usually exists only at the lower end of this hierarchy – in the realm of matter, and of material desires. But nonetheless, the upper levels of our self are still there, connected to God, even if we’re not conscious of it.

It’s an amazing thought – right now, a level of my self is in heaven. But I only become conscious of this divine level in my self in very rare moments of ecstasy. In such moments we don’t actually reach anywhere ‘new’ – our consciousness simply steps out onto the glorious penthouse of our self, as it were. We realize ‘oh, I’m home!’  The upper level is blissfully familiar to us, because we all came from the One, but forgot and got caught up in the lower levels.

Plotinus writes: ‘Not everything in the soul is immediately perceptile, rather it comes through to ‘us’ when it reaches percetion. Yet as long as a part of our soul is active but does not communicate [this fact] to the perceptual apparatus then the activity does not reach the entire soul.’

Hadot explains this passage thus:

Consciousness is a point of view, a centre of perspective. For us, our ‘self’ coincides with that point from which a perspective is opened up for us, be it into the world or onto our souls. In other words, in order for a psychic activity to be ‘ours’, it must be conscious. Consciousness then – and along with it our ‘self’ – is situated, like a median or an intermediate centre, between two zones of darkness, stretching anove and below it: on the one hand, the silent and unconscious life of our ‘self’ in God; on the other, the silent and unconscious life of the body. By means of our reason, we can discover the existence of these upper and lower levels.

This reminds one very much of Ken Wilber and his integral philosophy. Wilber also speaks of a hierarchy of realities, or ‘great chain of being’, which exists both in cosmic reality and in the self (pictured on the left). Wilber’s philosophy is, in fact, quite influenced by Plotinus. However, there’s a big difference between the two. With Plotinus, the ascent of the soul from the lower realms to the higher realms comes by trying to ‘forget’ the lower levels – forget the body, forget the emotions, forget sex, forget memories or the unconscious, forget the things of this world, forget everything except God. Wilber’s integral philosophy instead tries to include and integrate the lower levels in the ascent to the One – include the body, include the emotions, include sex, include the unconscious. Because if you try to forget this stuff or deny it, it will come back and haunt you, and block your ascent.

So the modern neoplatonism of Wilber and others is much more Jungian, one could say. It tries to integrate the lower and the higher levels of the self, including the unconscious.

I thought of Plotinus, Wilber and Jung when I was at a conference on psychedelics earlier this month, and a philosopher called Dave King talked about the spectrum of consciousness. He used this diagram to illustrate his point:

Threshold of consciousness.001

Most of these ‘levels of the self’ happen beyond our conscious awareness, although they’re always ‘running’. Sometimes, our consciousness moves down the spectrum and we can access these lower levels – when we fall asleep and start dreaming, for example, and we are able to access unconscious desires, habits and memories.

King suggests that spiritual techniques like psychedelic drugs or meditation can help us to move the ‘threshold of consciousness’ down, to unlock lower levels of the self, and to intervene. We can learn to consciously access and alter levels that are usually autonomic and unconscious, for healing purposes.

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for example, we learn how to consciously access and alter automatic belief patterns. But we may be able to go deeper than that through more contemplative or ecstatic practices – unlocking and altering deep repressed memories, or autonomic processes like our immune system. King gave various examples of people who had managed to change auto-immune illnesses like allergies or even multiple sclerosis using psychedelics. Perhaps we can even go down and alter our processes at the cellular level – becoming conscious of our DNA or the chemical constituents of plants.

Now in Plotinus’ model of the ascent of the soul, we forget the lower levels. They exist only to be disciplined, silenced and ultimately expunged as the soul flies up the One. But compare this to Plotinus’ most famous student, St Augustine. In his Confessions, Augustine plumbs the depths of his memories, his desires, his body, in order to remember who he is, in order to rediscover the deepest level of his self, which is God.

Where Plotinus flies up and tries to forget the lower levels, Augustine goes down, and tries to remember. That is a much more modern approach – the way up is the way down. Take the elevator down, all the way down, even into the limbo level, to try and remind oneself, that this is all a dream, that there is a divine reality which we have forgotten and left behind.

This was meant to be a blog about how these ideas play out in the film Inception, which seems influenced by some of these neoplatonic ideas. In Inception, Cobb rides the elevator of consciousness all the way down, through memories to the unconscious, in order to try and wake up.

The film is about one of the great risks of the Platonic mystical journey – how do you know, in your attempt to leave this world and ‘wake up’ to a higher spiritual reality, that you are not in fact merely leaving one dream for another? How do you know you have actually woken up?

Psychedelia and the future of religion

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David E. Nichols presenting his work on new psychedelic compounds

I spent the last few days at a weird and wonderful conference. It was called Breaking Convention 2015, the third conference on ‘psychedelic consciousness, culture and clinical research’ at the University of Greenwich. There, in the regal litoral digs of the university, facing the steel snarl of Canary Wharf, 800 ‘breakeroos’ gathered, dreadlocked witches, underground psychedelic therapists, mainstream scientists, Peruvian shamans and long-haired barefoot beatniks, to attend lectures, open their minds, explore light shows and virtual reality spaces, sign up to workshops on shamanic drumming or psychedelic orgasms, and dance away at the ‘Nite of Eleusis’ after-parties.

The conference was a unique marriage of science and spirituality. You could see chemist David E.Nichols presenting on the molecular structure of LSD-type compounds (while DIY chemists scribbled notes in the audience), then go to see shamans talking about ayahuasca ceremonies or classicists talking about the rites of Eleusis and Dionysus. How many conferences go from the cellular to the celestial in one session?

These are exciting times for psychedelic research. Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), said to the youngish audience: ‘This is the first generation where you can say ‘I want a career in psychedelics’, and that’s a reasonable thing to say’. After a 50-year hiatus, scientific research into psychedelics has re-started, and is finding remarkable results.

For example, researchers at John Hopkins Medical Hospital found that, after three doses of magic-mushroom drug psilocybin, 80% of smokers in a trial gave up smoking and had still given up six months later. The most successful anti-smoking therapy programmes at the moment have success rates of 30-35%. Several other recent studies have found psychedelics to be successful in treating addiction to alcohol, cocaine and heroin.

LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA has also been found to be effective in the treatment of depression, anxiety and PTSD. An ongoing study at Imperial College has given psilocybin to seven volunteers with chronic depression – four are currently in remission. Several trials have also found psychedelics reduce depression and anxiety in people with terminal illnesses. Roland Griffiths, lead researcher at the Johns Hopkins psychedelic research project, says: ‘A single moderate-high dose of psilocybin can produce substantial and enduring decreases in anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer diagnosis. There’s nothing else like that in psychopharmacology.’

Rick Doblin of MAPS imagines a future of psychedelic therapy clinics
Rick Doblin of MAPS imagines a future of psychedelic therapy clinics

The conference’s optimism and energy arose from the sense that the more proof there is of the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, the more likely they will be legalized for therapeutic use in clinical settings. Attendees spoke of the ‘post-prohibition era’ as if it was just over the next hill. But David Nutt, former chief drugs advisor to the UK government, warned the conference not to be too complacent, particularly when our government is poised to pass the Psychoactive Substances Bill, banning people’s ability to make and sell ‘legal highs’.

When psychonauts go psychonuts

The main barrier to decriminalization is the sense – which I happen to share – that psychedelics are risky, that when you open the door to the unconscious you are dicing with your health and sanity. Ernst Junger wrote to the discoverer of LSD, Albert Hoffman, in 1948: ‘These are experiments in which one sooner or later embarks on truly dangerous paths, and may be considered lucky to escape with only a black eye.’

Personally, I had a bad trip on LSD when I was 18 which left me with post-traumatic stress symptoms for five years. Looking back, I was too young, and had no sense of the proper ‘set and setting’ for a trip. I took it at a techno warehouse party and then went to an after-party where I didn’t really know anyone, and intense paranoia ensued. I then didn’t speak to anyone about my traumatic experience for several years. Not very smart. The symptoms did eventually pass, but I’m not the same person I was before the experience – I’m more introverted, probably more neurotic, though also perhaps more compassionate and able to help others.

Apparently, I’m one of the unlucky ones: a survey by Johanson and Krebs of 130,000 people found that the 15% of the US population which has used psychedelics have better mental health than the rest of the population, and there was little or no evidence of any long-term psychological problems among them. Roland Griffiths of John Hopkins did his own survey, where 1993 respondents reported distressing psychedelic experiences, and some were hospitalised – though most saw them as good in the long-term. Only 10% of respondents said the negative experiences had long-term consequences. He thinks the experience can be made almost completely safe in a clinical setting.

I would suggest that the reason psychedelics can be so therapeutic is also the reason they can potentially be harmful: they lead to what Imperial College’s Robin Carhart-Harris calls ‘ego dissolution’.

An illustration from Jung's Red Book
An illustration from Jung’s Red Book.

As we become adults, our construction of self and of reality is rendered into a stable configuration, an automatic programme that starts running the moment we wake up. Our construction can be bad for us. We may have integrated very negative beliefs or traumatic memories, which have become habituated into unconscious, physical, autonomic and even molecular patterns. Psychedelics dissolve this rigid construction, or bring the automatic to consciousness. They ‘lower the threshold of consciousness’ as Carl Jung put it, enabling us to re-encounter traumatic or repressed memories, to re-consider habitual or archetypal patterns and choose new patterns, to alter autonomic processes like auto-immune illnesses, perhaps even to intervene in our bodies at the cellular level. We can see the stitching in our reality-construction and we can unstitch and restich.

That can be liberating. We can have a sense of ego-dissolution into the blissful ocean of our creative unconscious. The unconscious that we meet on psychedelics is more the benign archetypal fairy-land of Jungian therapy than the nihilistic jungle of sexual violence that Freud suggested. We descend into that underworld, and can emerge with a sense of rebirth. In Griffiths’ studies at Johns Hopkins, 60% of participants said their psilocybin trip was one of the most meaningful experiences of their life.

But, as Jungian psychologist Scott J. Hill noted, ego-dissolution can also be terrifying – our ego resists dissolution. We are confronted with trauma or darkness, and we can’t handle it. We run and hide, and we can keep running for a long time. 62% of Griffiths’ participants also said their trip was one of the most difficult or challenging experiences of their life.

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A Kosmicare ‘psychedelic harm reduction’ tent at a festival

That’s why it’s important to have guides – friends, doctors, nurses, care-givers – to help you through any dark patches. I was impressed with the wok of ‘psychedelic harm reduction’ organizations like Kosmicare, who provide support to trippers at festivals and help them to accept that ‘difficult trips are not necessarily bad trips’ as Rick Doblin put it. Too often, if someone is having a ‘transient psychotic episode’ on psychedelics, the reaction of health professionals is to tranquilize and hospitalize them – denying their experience any kind of spiritual meaning or worth, and perhaps even slamming a psychotic or schizophrenic label on them for life. That’s a curse. Trying to talk people through difficult phases of trips so they find a therapeutic or transcendent interpretation seems a much, much better approach.

Revealing spiritual reality?

Psychedelics, then, reveal very interesting things to us about the mind, consciousness, unconsciousness, the ego, and how we can change the ego’s beliefs and behaviour. Do they also tell us interesting things about the nature of reality?

Participants at the ancient Greek rites of Eleusis came away thinking they would ‘die with a better hope’. Is that, I wondered, why psychedelics decrease anxiety and depression in the terminally ill? Do they come away from the experience with a new belief in the afterlife? I asked Thorsten Passie from Harvard, who has studied how LSD reduces anxiety in those with life-threatening illness. He replied: ‘We didn’t ask them, but I think so.’ I also asked Roland Griffiths, who has undertaken a similar study. He replied: ‘Not everyone necessarily becomes convinced there’s an afterlife, but quite often they become open to that possibility for the first time. That’s a big change to the total certainty they are facing annihilation.’

Of course, a new experience-based belief in the afterlife is not scientific proof. But it’s interesting. And it’s also interesting that decreased anxiety and and an increased belief in the afterlife is a reliable consequence of near-death experiences.

A DMT creature depicted by psychedelic artist Luke Brown
A DMT creature depicted by psychedelic artist Luke Brown

Another common phenomenon in psychedelic experiences is a sense of encounter with spirits, deities, or creatures from another universe or dimension. A survey of 800 psychonauts by Fountonglou and Freimoser found that 46% of ayahuasca-takers reported ‘encounters with suprahuman or spiritual entities’, as well as 36% of DMT-takers, 17% of LSD takers, and 12% of psilocybin-takers. Similar percentages reported ‘experiences of other universes and encounters with their inhabitants.’

This raises an interesting question for psychedelic academia – how to make sense of these spirits? There was a whole afternoon session devoted to the question of the ‘elves’ or ‘little people’ which takers of DMT regularly report encountering. Interpretations ranged from the purely materialist (it’s a brain-trick), to the Jungian (they’re archetypes from the collective unconscious) to the literal (they’re really real). As the anthropologist Jack Hunter noted, that last assertion is somewhat taboo in academia, which tends to be committed to naturalist materialist explanations. You can be anything in academia, from transgender to post-Lacanian, as long as it’s materialist.

The academics at this conference (David Luke, Dave King, Jack Hunter and others) showed a brave willingness to go over that naturalist barrier and open themselves to the possibility that the discarnate entities they encounter are ‘really real’. Hunter called this ‘ontological flooding’.

But I think we need to go further than that. We need to recognize not just that there may be discarnate entities out there, but also that not all of them are benevolent. That means opening the door to the spirit-world, but not leaving it wide open to be ‘flooded’ by any and every spirit. Indeed, several of the speakers and participants, including Hunter and the author Daniel Pinchbeck, reported having felt possessed during or after a psychedelic experience – they felt they had been invaded by a spirit which was not entirely friendly (Albert Hoffman had a similar experience on the first ever LSD trip in 1943). We need to know not just how to open the doors of our mind, but also how to close them.

This is the conclusion psychedelic researcher Rick Strassman arrived at, following his landmark study in 1990, in which 60 participants took DMT, and many reported encountering alien or insectoid beings, who were not all benevolent. He said at the conference: ‘How can we tell if these beings are for us or against us? Will we try to weaponize them, or will they try and weaponize us?’ This reminded me of the film Prometheus, in which humans search for contact with higher beings, only to discover the higher beings are utterly contemptuous of us.

Psychedelic Christianity?

Strassman concluded: ‘When opening yourself to spiritual worlds, it’s not all love and light. It’s important to know how to protect yourself, how to pray.’ He has ended up going back to his Hebrew upbringing, and to the Bible, for guidance. Certainly, both Hellenic and Judeao-Christian culture developed advanced techniques and practices for the ‘discernment of spirits’, to protect practitioners against both bad spirits and their own hyperactive imagination.

But Strassman’s return to our Judaeo-Christian heritage went down like a shit balloon with the New Agers of the conference, who tended to embrace an ABC mentality: Anything But Christianity. You were much more likely to hear enthusiastic discussions of the Maenads, or wicca, or Peruvian shamanism, or sex magick, or Aleister Crowley. The dominant tone was anarchic, liberationist, transgressive, trickster, marginal, counter-cultural.

I think this snobbery towards Christianity is a mistake – you ignore 2000 years of ecstatic culture and philosophy, and end up in the intellectual and artistic shallows with mediocre ego-maniacs like Crowley or William Burroughs. Psychedelic culture can end up all about transgression, and not about trying to create integrated, wise, safe, moral, prosocial, mainstream cults which last for thousands of years, as Eleusis and Christianity did. You need not just just cultural transgression at the margin of society, but wise cults at the centre. At the moment, we have counter-cultures but no central cult.

I wonder if, in a hundred years, some form of psychedelic Christianity will have emerged, like the Santo Daime church in Brazil, which combines ayahuasca ceremony with Christianity’s rituals and emphasis on virtue, love, beauty, forgiveness, humility and rebirth. Is that possible or conceivable?

In any case, the sense I got from BreakingCon was that psychedelic culture hopes to spread beyond the counter-culture and ‘go mainstream’. Imperial’s Robin Carhart-Harris said: ‘I like the vision of controlled places where people can have controlled psychedelic experiences.’ Controlled places to lose control – this is what the best rites are.

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