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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 cabin in the woods

I covered a lot of different types of ecstatic experience in my book The Art of Losing Control – spontaneous ecstasy, ecstasy in nature, sexual ecstasy, psychedelic ecstasy, ecstasy through worship, war, sport, even the internet. I think it was one of the most comprehensive books on the subject – what few books there are on the topic tend to only cover positive experiences, and leave out stuff like, say, the ecstasy of mob violence.

But it’s such a huge, amorphous, tricksy, fluxy experience, that you can’t possibly capture all aspects of it, all the strange forms it takes. There are some big gaps in the book – I didn’t talk much about the ecstasy of comedy, for example.

Two big areas I left out were the ecstasy of mediums and psychics, and the ecstasy of alien or UFO encounters. I was conscious that I was already stretching the envelope in terms of bringing the unusual into the mainstream, and I just thought, if I start talking about mediums and psychics, I’d need to inform myself about the whole enormous literature on telepathy, and I’d be taking myself even further from the mainstream. And UFOs? I really would be among the kooks then.

There are some career risks when you write about ecstatic experiences – I mean, not massively for me, because I don’t have a normal academic career thank God. But they exist. Those risks are even bigger for UFO studies.

Take the example of John Mack, a senior psychiatrist and Pulitzer-Prize winner from Harvard.  He became fascinated by abduction experiences, and wrote a book about them in 1994. Shortly afterwards, he was informed by a colleague that he was under investigation by Harvard. He’d made the mistake, he was told, of not insisting these experiences were symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. Instead he’d said he wasn’t sure what they were (he later decided they were manifestations of some sort of Greater Mind). He subsequently resigned from Harvard.

I was wary of wading into these waters. Nor did I know much about them. On the last page of my book, however, I nod to this topic. I wrote: ‘I have a sense of the universe as a vast ecosystem bringing with intelligences. Yet I wonder, why aren’t they more chatty?’ This is a reference to something called the ‘Fermi paradox’, a thought-experiment put forward by the physicist Enrico Fermi: the universe is enormous, there is a high probability of other intelligent life-forms on other planets or dimensions, some of whom are probably superior to us. But where are they? Why aren’t they more chatty?

Well…maybe they are! There are several thousand reported sightings of UFOs each year -the National UFO Reporting Centre says they’re getting more frequent, from 5000 in 1980 to 45,000 in 2010. A surprising amount of people also say they’ve encountered aliens.

In 1987, a horror writer called Whitley Strieber claimed he was abducted from his cabin in the woods of upstate New York by little blue men with enormous eyes, who then raped him with a ‘rectal probe’ and took a sample of his semen (the rape was confirmed by a medical examination). He wrote a book about his experience – Communion – and he and his wife were subsequently inundated with letters from people claiming similar experiences.

They got a lot of letters, several thousand a day at one point. To put this in perspective, Sir Alister Hardy, a biologist who investigated ecstatic experiences in the 1970s,  placed adverts in newspapers asking people to send in accounts of their experiences, and he only received around 4000 replies in total. Strieber received over 200,000 letters. 

Strieber’s book was a huge hit, but his fame made him a target and he was widely mocked, particularly for the ‘rectal probe’. 


He says the visits didn’t stop – for several years, his cabin was visited by little blue men and other odd phenomena, which he says many others also witnessed. He even claims there’s still an implant in his ear (I wish he’d just cut off his ear-lobe for the sake of science…well, at least leave it to science after he dies).

What does this have to do with ecstasy? As the smarter UFO scholars have pointed out, the alien encounter has similarities to descriptions of other ecstatic experiences like near-death experiences, psychedelic trips, and mystical experiences – white light; physical manifestations like shaking, heat or buzzing; emotions of awe, terror and joy; an encounter with a higher intelligence, a sense of being chosen, transformed, sent back with a mission (in UFO abductions, the mission is often ecological – the visitors are worried we’re destroying the planet).

As for the erotic aspects, well, older forms of divine encounter are also often erotic – think of all those god-rapes in classical myth, or the sons of God breeding with the daughters of men in Genesis, or God inseminating Mary, or the randy blue divinities of Hinduism, or the sexual rapture of Christian mystics. Rapture, after all, comes from the Latin raptus, meaning ‘to be seized, abducted or raped’.

If you look back at some of the revelatory encounters in the Bible, they’re really pretty weird – Ezekiel seeing spinning discs in the sky, Moses seeing a burning bush, Daniel seeing a figure in the fire, Abraham seeing God and two angels strolling along for a picnic, Jesus ascends into the sky, Paul gets carried up into the heavens. Later Christian visionaries reported seeing cities in the sky – cities, or UFOs??

What to make of it? Like other ecstatic experiences, there are several interpretative positions one could take. You could say that encounter experiences are the product of the human psyche in extremis – Michael Shermer, the well-known sceptic psychologist, says he had an alien encounter once after bicycling for many miles without water, which he put down to exhaustion. Other experiences seem like sleep paralysis. One notes that some of the most famous encounter experiences happen to fantasy fiction writers – Strieber, Philip K. Dick, L. Ron Hubbard. Perhaps they’re carried away not by aliens, but by their imaginations.

A shot from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He said: ‘I’d be very surprised if the universe wasn’t full of an intelligence of an order that to us would seem God-like. I find it very exciting to have a semi-logical belief that there’s a great deal to the universe we don’t understand, and that there is an intelligence of an incredible magnitude outside the Earth.’

Or maybe there really are aliens from other planets visiting us, and humans have mistakenly interpreted it as divine beings. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. An i-phone would seem like a divine talisman to a pygmy. Many science fiction films have riffed off this idea – Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: Space Odyssey, Contact, Arrival and others explore the idea of alien-as-God. Some new religious movements have claimed that the gods are really aliens – Scientology, most obviously, but also the Heaven’s Gate cult and the Aetherius Society. Sci-fi also plays with the anxiety that maybe we’re slaves, livestock or prey to these superior beings, as in Prometheus, The Matrix or Predator. 

Both these hypotheses take a more or less scientific and materialist interpretation of the phenomena. But there are other possibilities.

WTF experiences

I’ve just finished a book by Whitley Strieber and a religious scholar called Jeffrey Kripal, called The Supernatural: A New Vision of the Unexplained. Kripal is a professor at Rice University, and one of my favourite scholars of the ecstatic. He’s a great writer, and brave in three ways. Firstly, he’s very good at tracking contemporary forms of ecstasy, looking at low-brow, pop culture stuff like UFOs and superhero myths. Secondly, he bravely explores the connection between the mystical and the erotic (this led to one of his books being banned in India). Thirdly, he’s prepared to include his own ecstatic experiences. And he insists we walk a line between religious reductionism and scientific reductionism, staying open to the weirdness of the ecstatic.

The metaphor I use in my book is of the soul as a cabin in the woods (just like Whitley’s cabin). Occasionally, we hear strange noises in the forest, knocks upon the wall, figures appear at the window. It’s freaky. How do we interpret those knocks?

Ezekiel and his spinning discs

Religions, particularly monotheisms, tend to have a very reductive view. It’s either God, the Devil or your imagination. Come on, really? That’s it? Just look at the revelations in the Bible – Moses is told ‘no one may see me and live’, while Abraham sees God wander up for a picnic. They’re not even called the same names – sometimes it’s Jehovah, sometimes Elohim (which means The Blessed Ones). Even Satan morphs from being a sort of worker for God, in the Book of Job, to being the ultimate Bad Guy in the New Testament and later Christian theology.

Science can be equally reductive. It’s just your brain buzzing, or your subconscious. There’s nothing really ‘out there’ beyond the human. Why not? Why is that a ridiculous and unacceptable idea?

Strieber and Kripal think it’s more complicated than materialism (either brain delusions or aliens from another planet). They suggest that alien encounters are more like encounters with some sort of Greater Mind – what William James called Mind-at-Large – which may be our own Bigger Consciousness, perhaps even our future selves (as in Interstellar). They think these encounters are glimpses of some bigger game that we don’t fully understand, to do with our souls, the future of our species, and our existence in this dimension. Strieber’s wife noted that many of the alien encounters also involved the appearance of friends or loved ones who had died. ‘This seems to be something to do with death’, she said.

It also has something to do with owls. Strieber notes that owls often appeared around the alien visits. His work definitely seems an inspiration for the X Files and Twin Peaks – cabins in woods, alien owls, abductions, FBI investigations, small men dancing…His experiences are pure David Lynch, weird, eery, at times ridiculous.

Whatever it is people are encountering, if it is something transpersonal, it takes the forms of existing culture – if you live in the 20th century, it takes the form of our scientific and pop culture. And it plays with those forms, sometimes taking outlandish and cartoonish shape, as if it’s lampooning the culture, as if it’s…fucking with us. Heraclitus said, ‘nature loves to hide’. So does the Whatever. It refuses to be trapped by human categories. It’s trickster, mercurial, fluxy. That’s frustrating, and scary. But maybe that’s the point. It won’t be reduced.

I respect Kripal’s radical agnosticism, his refusal to get stuck in categories, his epistemological humility, but is it enough? Can it really be the structure for our relationship to the Whatever? What ethics do we take from it? Do we not need some sort of stable cultural myth, some interpretation of the What-The-Fuck, and the ethical prescriptions to be drawn from it?  I put this to Kripal in an interview. He thinks the New Age (including UFO-based spirituality) does actually have a strong ethical component – it tends to be strongly environmental, more open to sexual difference than monotheism, and more open to the weirdness and fluxiness of the What-Have-You.

Well, here we are. Knocks on the cabin roof. Muffled messages through the walls. And homo sapiens, semi-intelligent monkeys, scrabbling to make sense of the messages, opening the door, peering out, and wondering.