Delusion vs. Reality: On the Validity of Psychedelic Experience|
Chapter 02: Psychedelic Information Theory
So what's so important about the psychedelic experience? Why is it any more interesting than your typical bizarre dream, nightmare, or other psychotic episode? Why is the state sought out by so many people? Why is it worth examining is such detail?
Yes, indeed, that is the big question: Why are psychedelics so important? There is no simple answer to that, none that will fit into a sentence or two. But nonetheless, psychedelics are important, they are very important. And when I say that they are important, I mean that they are an essential part of human culture; they should be respected; they should be studied; they provide insight into both past and future; they can have real influence over us. A quick dictionary check of "important" brings up this definition: Strongly affecting the course of events or the nature of things. Yes, that is psychedelics in a nutshell. They are important.
I won't presume to tell you why psychedelics are important, and I wouldn't expect you to take my word for it if I did. But when I say that they are important I say so because like so many other things that have clung to us along the way psychedelics have played an intrinsic role in the development of human culture, religion, and society since the dawn of our species. We would not be who were are today without their subtle and sometimes overt influence over us. We will not be who we will be in one-thousand years from now without them. They have influenced and will influence human culture for the rest of time, and I don't think there's any way of getting around that. Psychedelics are entrenched in human society; they are pandemic; they are intertwined into our history and collective consciousness as deeply as apples and stars and diamonds and gold. For proof, I only ask you to spend five minutes thumbing though the children's section of your local bookstore without being completely overrun by images of spotted Fly Agaric toadstools and fanciful fairies flitting about on trails of sparkling pixie dust. These innocuous icons of childhood lore are thumbprints of the psychedelic influence on our culture, and are only a few examples in a vast array of psychedelic influences which permeate our culture.
I mention this only because it is very easy to dismiss psychedelics altogether as not important, not useful, and perhaps even dangerous, simply because they are illegal and poorly understood. Prohibition aside, psychedelics do continue to affect society at large. Just because the effect of a psychedelic may be classified as "delusional" does not mean that they don't have real consequences or real influence on the real world. They do, they have, they will continue to do so. Locking the mystery away and labeling it taboo is not the answer. This psychedelic experience is possibly the most powerful beast in the entire arsenal of human experience, but it can be tamed, and it can be used effectively for a number of purposes, clinical, recreational, diabolical, and otherwise.
For someone who has not tried psychedelics, or who has had a bad experience, it is easy to dismiss the psychedelic experience as akin to a mental disorder; an induced delusional psychosis to be avoided at all costs. For that kind of skeptic there will always remain a big mystery here as to the whole psychedelic attraction. Why indeed would something so perverse as a mushroom induced delusional head-trip be so intimately woven into the fabric of our culture (both literally and figuratively)? If you look at the psychedelic purely as a catalyst for psychosis a psychotomimetic as they were called in the early days then of course it seems extremely perverse that an insanity-producing agent, a toxin no less, might hold such a prominent role in the fundamental development of our species. But if you view the psychedelic as a sacrament an entheogenic agent that manifests divine grace in the user when ingested in a ritual context then the answer to this question becomes obvious. In a culture so fascinated with religion and God, the question should be: Why isn't the psychedelic considered to be an essential part of human culture?
As I write this, there are very serious laws which severely prohibit the use of psychedelics (except for Peyote or ayahuasca) by anyone (other than Native Americans, or members of the Santo Daime Church) for any reason (other than as a religious sacrament). While my previous sentence may seem like the ultimate head-fuck contradiction in terms, it is nonetheless the truth. As a Caucasian American not affiliated with a peyote or ayahuasca cult, and not involved in legitimate FDA-approved research, I am expressly prohibited from manufacturing, possessing, or using any form of psychedelic drug for any reason, punishable by up to life in prison in some states. While I do not wish to make this text a polemic on our current drug laws, it is sufficient to say that I believe they are currently far too harsh. And yet, oddly, it seems that some limits are being lifted on clinical, academic, and traditional sacramental use. I view this as a small step towards progress, but also understand the harsh, reactionary response the U.S. government has taken towards the "psychedelic threat" in recent decades. Psychedelics represent the worst kind of fear to people in power: they are unpredictable, they are difficult to control, they produce change, they hold immense mystery, power, and they are important.
And so, as I write this, I am sorry to inform you that we are living in a kind of psychedelic dark age, but the future is looking brighter. While vast digital information structures sprawl outwards before us liberating knowledge and information in a way never before seen in all of human history we are simultaneously squashing the psychedelic information structures, the catalysts for transcendent vision and thinking, the very neurochemical essences of our cutting-edge human ingenuity and innovation. And if you think that last statement is hyperbole, then spend some time thinking about where innovation comes from. It comes from the far-reaching edges of human thought, the wild waving tendrils of idea that cling together in the primal spark of imagination. If there were some way to bottle this spark and give it to our brightest thinkers, who knows what kind of information would emerge? Who knows indeed? One might argue that it is already emerging, and it has been for a long time now. Because the fact is we can bottle it and we have fed it to our brightest thinkers, and what came out of it was so revolutionary and "out there" that it scared us rat-faced shitless and we stuck it back in its bottle, buried it and decided to outlaw it for all time.
I mean, you saw the Sixties, right? Holy shit, what was that? Scary, huh?
Modern History: The Psychedelic Explosion
Huxley, Schultes, Hofmann, Hubbard, Leary, MKULTRA, Manson... For those of you not familiar with the names here I suggest you Google the list and/or check out the biographies and bibliographies for further reading, but these are the names responsible for our current state of psychedelic legal affairs in 21st century Earth. I am not blaming any one of them, but each contributed in their own way and set the context for the immense culture shock psychedelics had on Western society in the 20th century. For centuries, the lore of the psychedelic had been buried in folklore and tribal tradition, lost in witch tales and forbidden pagan rites as the dominance of Christianity spread through the Western world. But in the 20th century a few very important things happened in a very short span of time:
These may seem like three small events, but they literally swept the world up in a storm. In the background of WWII and the Cold War, this psychedelic thing was suddenly trickling into popular consciousness, and the US Government was involved from the very beginning. All through the '50s and '60s the government and military ran a variety of covert operations with names like MKULTRA and it's predecessor project ARTICHOKE, in which electronic mind-control techniques, LSD, and dozens of other psychedelic compounds were tested as brainwashing agents on themselves, on laboratory volunteers, and on unwitting civilian subjects just to see what would happen. Around this time a mysterious man by the name of Al Hubbard, who had worked for the military and the government in various capacities, wound up in control of a mayonnaise jar filled with LSD and wound up distributing it en masse to the ranking members of the sixties new-age counterculture, eventually turning the radical anti-war movement into a huge day-glow love fest of costumed fools and long-haired flower-waving freaks almost overnight (1967). And in the middle of it all was a Harvard psychology professor turned New Age guru named Timothy Leary, a very avid and public proselytizer for the wonderful consciousness-expanding qualities of LSD.
It sounds like a sure-fire recipe for disaster...
And then came Charles Manson and his LSD-fueled hippy family of helter-skelter homicidal maniacs (1969), and all hell broke loose, for a few months anyway...
But in addition to all the revolutionary cultural hijinks, pathological drug cults, and black-ops skullduggery, there were also many legitimate clinicians who were actually doing real work with psychedelics, finding ways to incorporate them productively into their practice. But of course, all the legitimate research was shut down when psychedelics were placed in Schedule I of restricted substances in the Controlled Substances Act, making it a felony to have anything to do with them (1970).
But look back on these quaint and tumultuous times and you'll see that it was only twenty-seven years from Hofmann's discovery of LSD to the stupefying horrors of Charles Manson and his LSD-brainwashed family of smiling cold-blooded killers. Wow! With the backdrop of the Cold War, Vietnam, the Hippy movement, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, Charles Manson, etc. etc., It's no wonder the government wrapped this stuff up tight and threw away the key. They had no idea what they were dealing with, and they knew that something this powerful should not be in the hands of opportunistic sociopaths like Charles Manson, no sir, no way, no how. So the hammer came down, and psychedelics became verboten.
End of story? You wish...
Integrating a New Reality
So we now stand at an impasse: The government has decreed that these substances are forbidden and have no social or medical (or other) value that would allow anyone to take them for any reason. And yet their power cannot be denied, for we have seen it in action, and seen it in action on a very large scale over a long period of time. Some might liken LSD to dynamite, but instead of blowing up buildings it blows up minds. Put that kind of power in the wrong hands and you have trouble. But what happens when you put that power in the right hands? What happens then?
But there were no "right hands" in the Western world when the psychedelic beast exploded, and there are still none today. We have no legitimate shamen to show us the way, we have no experts to tell us what to do when hordes of privileged kids start getting off and demanding real change, or start dropping out of society en masse and living reckless, carefree lives. Nope, no help there. What we get instead is self-styled gurus and media creations that preach of a glorious path to higher consciousness while conveniently forgetting the dark side of the psychedelic coin. And instead of getting the truth, we get two polar sides of a contrived debate: Psychedelics make you crazy; Psychedelics make you enlightened.
Well which is it?
I'm sorry to say that the answer is both. Sorry because I wish the answer was easy and this book need never be written, but it is not so. Having ingested both the propaganda of prohibition and the dogma of the true believers, I have come to the conclusion that both sides are utterly full of shit. The prohibitionist will tell you that all psychedelic use is dangerous and seditious, leading only to harm and destruction and having no cultural or individual worth. The true believer will tell you that psychedelic use is a sacred thing, leading to expanded consciousness and harmonious interaction with all living things. But I will tell you a different story, one that says that both of these points of view are right, but both of them are wrong as well because neither side tells the whole story. Psychedelics can lead to harm and destruction just as easily as they can lead to harmony and enlightenment, and it is the goal of this text to explain exactly why that is and what is to be done about it.
Admittedly, it is a very complex issue. I would love to be able to write a book and say things like, "Psychedelics are the window to the soul, they are the breath of God, the timeless essence of truth now available in pill form..." but alas, I would be lying, or at least obscuring the truth through poetic whim. But the truth is that the psychedelics can be a window to the soul if they are used correctly, but they can also be a window to hell, so your mileage may vary, and this text explains why. Because I have discovered what any good shaman eventually discovers, and that is that psychedelics are tools. If you wish to use them to distort your perception, you can do that. If you want to use them to enhance your perception, you can do that. If you want to take them and spend hours in a waking dream-like hallucination, you can do that. If you want to take them and perform amazing athletic feats or dance all night without getting tired, you can do that. If you want to take them and achieve a timeless unity with the mind of the universe, you can do that. If you want to take them and go crazy and lose your mind and totally freak out and run screaming naked down the street you can do that too. But this is the point: It is the wide range of potential utility and outcome that makes the psychedelic so powerful and mysterious. And taking a psychedelic may be different every single time. Psychedelics have the seemingly magical ability to shape their utility to the moment, they can act in the fashion of many different drugs, and often go beyond the range of what we expect a drug to do when we take it. It can be immense.
So how do you work with something that's so slippery and unpredictable? First, you have to understand how it all works, or at least be familiar with the process. Then, you have to adjust your own procedure to minimize the unpredictable outcomes. Lastly, and most importantly, you need to know how to deal with that which you cannot predict, for you will surely face it sooner than later in the psychedelic state. It is the very fact that we cannot predict what will happen in the psychedelic state that makes the experience so mysterious, powerful, and alluring. It is like a Pandora's Box of horrors and delights, wonders and surprises. This unpredictability the "X" factor of the psychedelic experience is what links it so intimately to creativity and the production of novelty. Each individual trip has the potential to dredge up the most outlandish and improbable stuff, and each journey has its own pitfalls and rewards. In this regard, psychedelics are unlike any other drug or any other experience I can think of, including dreaming. They represent a place in the mind where all things are possible, right here, right now. Delusion or not, that is the reality.
- A reserved and well-mannered Swiss chemist by the name of Albert Hoffman discovers the hallucinogenic properties of a compound he'd isolated 5 years earlier called LSD-25, and quickly realizes that it's the most potent hallucinogen ever discovered (1942). Sandoz, the lab he works for, becomes the first chemical supplier of LSD to the world.
- A British writer by the name of Aldous Huxley becomes infatuated with mescaline a compound isolated from the Peyote sacrament of the Native Americans and writes The Doors of Perception (1954), the first Western volume which attempts to tackle the sticky issue of the psychedelic state head-on.
- A curious amateur ethnomycologist named R. Gordon Wasson takes an interest in the hallucinogenic mushrooms of Central America, and writes of his experiences with the curandera Maria Sabina in Life magazine (1957).
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Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2005-02-10 00:00:00