By James Kent
Since the dawn of time humans have ascribed mystical properties to those things they do not fully understand. In ancient times as to this day, humans worshipped the sun, the earth, the moon, the stars, the plants, animals, and a pantheon of invisible all-powerful deities. Yet as the mortal powers of science have scrutinized the material world it has become clearer and clearer that spirits forces have little to do with workings of our reality. From the quantum scale to the furthest reaches of space we have found no room for pixies, demons or demigods, and this is widely accepted to be true within every modern field of scientific research save for one: Psychedelics.
Psychedelics are an interesting case study in mysticism for two very simple reasons: they produce mystical experiences and have a long history of traditional ritual use in order to produce mystical experiences. Because these substances are mystically effective and come pre-loaded with archetypal spiritual dogma, they can effectively be passed from generation to generation as secret keys to unlocking mystical experience. In modern times Gordon Wasson, Timothy Leary, and Terence McKenna all sold the notion of mushrooms, LSD, and DMT as gateways to hidden spirit knowledge, higher consciousness, and higher dimensions. For many modern psychedelic users the entheogenic or mystical context is the primary context in which they seek these drugs, and many hope to find a full-blown religious experiences awaiting them on the other side. And, in truth, many of them are not disappointed.
It is somewhat fashionable in the psychedelic community to use the term “entheogen” to describe all psychedelics and intoxicating plants, even though psychedelic substances are just as likely to produce delusional paranoia as divine awakenings. And while psychedelics can reliably produce mystical mind states – including communion with spirits, aliens, elves, and gods – I assert that it is naive and dangerous to use the content of the psychedelic experience as the basis for wider spiritual belief. In the U.S.A. we have a constitution which protects religious belief, so it is understandable why psychedelic enthusiasts rush to promote psychedelics as a religious endeavor to legitimize their use. Similar to those who would explore the medical use of psychedelics, the spiritual approach is always one of the first places an enthusiast will go in order to retain some credibility in the light of prohibition, and it is perfectly reasonable. But do we really have to believe it?
As someone who has explored psychedelics for some time with the full intent to verify these spiritual claims, I must say I have come up with few reasons to believe the mythology of the psychedelic spirit world any longer. Although psychedelics can produce spiritual experiences, and can have bona-fide therapeutic effects, I have found very little which would lead me to believe that spirit entities from autonomous spirit worlds are responsible for the informational content or healing powers of these experiences. And with that in mind, I now present my best case against this notion of psychedelic spirit worlds and spirit teachers, and why it can be dangerous to blithely conflate psychedelics and spirituality.
1. Psychedelics are hallucinogenic drugs, which by definition means they make you see things that aren’t real. Whatever other argument I present here, this is the one you must always come back to. Some hallucinations, particularly those that are spiritual in nature, feel very real. But the same drug that can make you see spirits can make you see demons, memories, mandalas, mundane scenes from everyday life, and just about anything you can think of (and many things you can’t). However, no matter how real or bizarre or lifelike or spiritual the experience, it all fades back to dust when the drug wears off; the pocket holographic universe in your mind folds back into 3-D space and the dream is over. Let it go.
2. Psychedelics are about the self; they are a form of self-exploration. You get out of the experience what you put into the experience. If you have a spiritual experience it is because you are a spiritual person or at a spiritual place in your thinking; if you have a bad experience it is because you are at a bad place in your life or are being destructive or negative in your thinking. You would not blame the gods for a bad trip or even a mediocre trip with no mystical fireworks, so why would you give them credit for the good ones? In other words, you are not an empty vessel passively receiving the mystical experience, you are the biological organism that is producing it.
3. Simply because you heard voices or saw gods or met elves does not mean that the experience has any deeper meaning beyond your own imagination. It is much easier to prove the case for delusional psychosis than it is to invoke an entire spirit world to explain your personal insights, so why make the spirit leap just because it “felt real” at the time. Dreams also feel real, but we tend to dismiss them because they are weirdly surreal, easy to forget, and we are sleeping at the time. We should have the same kind of removed perspective for our psychedelic experiences as well. We can use the content of the experience to see what it tells us about ourselves, but should not blindly rush to believe everything that comes out.
1. The human brain perceives reality on a very narrow spectrum of visible light and audible sound waves, this is how external information enters into waking thought. The human brain is a biological device, and in order to “see” something there must be electrochemical stimulation in the visual cortex. If you are making the case for spirit beings or invisible landscapes that can only be seen under the influence of psychedelics, you are making a case for the human brain being a kind of radio that can detect “spirit energy” that no other camera or mechanical energy-sensing device can perceive. While this is an interesting argument, it makes no sense. If there is a spirit energy out there that the human brain can perceive, other more sensitive devices should be able to perceive this spirit energy as well, yet none exist. Invoking the clause of “only I can see it (when I’m on drugs)” makes the claims of psychonauts all the more far-fetched, and when you ascribe spirit powers to visions produced by a chemical that naturally bonds to receptors in your visual cortex, it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how neurochemical stimulation of the neocortex results in perception. The visions are from the psychoactive molecule exciting neural activity within your brain, not from spirits emitting external waves on a higher-dimensional frequency that only you can perceive.
2. If there are autonomous spirits and a spirit world that the human mind can perceive, then these spirit formations must be made out of something. In order to morph and cohere and reflect light and create sound vibrations that the retina or cortex or neural network can perceive, these entities have to have some substrate in which to exist. Without resorting to alternate dimensions or dark matter which exist within the brain or within the psychedelic molecules themselves, the average psychonaut has no answer as to what it is the spirit world may be made out of or where we might find it. Some may try to invoke higher vibrations or alternate dimensions, but all of this speculation requires a mystical gateway to information in a spirit realm, and neither gateway nor information nor realm has any physical fingerprint in hard reality other than the firing of neurons in a brain. Attempting to externalize psychedelic visions into a spiritual framework only creates more questions than it answers, when all that is needed to produce psychedelic visions is a human neural network and a pinch of selective seratonin agonists.
1. While there has been no satisfactory objective proof demonstrating that a spirit world exists, there has been an abundance of proof demonstrating that psychosis exists, and that the human mind is perfectly capable of fabricating detailed alternate realities without the aid of drugs or spirits. There have been many models of psychosis offered, including the dopamine model of psychosis and the cholinergic model of mediating waking/dreaming states. Hallucinations, mystical experience, and delusions of grandeur are par for the course with psychosis – as is paranoia and irrational belief – yet many people who use psychedelics spiritually or recreationally are not fond of using the term “acute psychosis” to describe the effects, though this description clearly fits in high dose cases.
2. While psychedelics may give some people insights and an expanded consciousness, they can also lead to irrational behavior and the degradation of reason. In very simple terms, there is a psychedelic use threshold that eventually leads to mental irrationality in the user. It is unknown what this precise threshold is, and it is probably different for every person, but chronic use of high-dose psychedelics can either exacerbate existing psychotic tendencies or lead to other forms of mental irrationality, such as self-professed clairvoyance or telepathic contact with aliens, spirits, deities, and the like. Are these long-term effects best termed spiritual enlightenment or chronic recurrent delusional psychosis?
1. If we are to throw out all the arguments posed so far and concede for a moment that psychedelics offer some access to the wisdom of the spirits, there are still a few problems. In order to prove the autonomy of the spirits encountered on a psychedelic trip, various tests have been proposed to see if new information can be gleaned in the spirit dimension. According to traditional lore, shamen are able to use psychedelics to diagnose and cure disease, divine the use of plants, find missing objects, and perhaps even see the future. These all seem like very magical and mystical things when posed in that context, but if you take into account that human beings can do all of those things already, without the aide of psychedelic drugs, then you start to see how flimsy the whole spirit-knowledge thing becomes. There are a few famous reported cases of people making amazing discoveries with the aid of psychedelics, but the people who make these discoveries are usually brilliant to begin with. It would be one thing if history was filled with tales of Navaho wizards finding the secret cure for smallpox, Mayan wizards finding the secret formula for gunpowder, Or Amazonian wizards finding the magical power to save the rainforests, but we know the opposite is true. When faced with real hard-world technology, the sacred wisdom offered by the psychedelic spirit realm shows its painful limitations.
2. If information is actually received from the spirit world during the psychedelic session, then it has become patently obvious that much of the information from the spirit world is not to be trusted. Even traditional shaman warn of trickery and deceit from the spirit realm, so what good is their data? One would assume that if you were to commune with actual spirits that they wouldn’t steer you wrong, but often they do. So what are we to make of their purpose, and why would we place such importance on their knowledge? Clinging to the spirit delusion forces one to adopt paradoxical conclusions such as “Spirit entities exist, but they confound and play tricks in order to make it impossible to objectively test their data and thus prove their own existence.” As far-fetched as this statement may seem, many people willingly ignore all the other evidence and swallow such spirit logic as long as it allows them to retain the belief in these entities. The other option, which is “Perhaps I just imagined it all while high on drugs,” seems overly simple in comparison, and yet the simplest answer is usually the correct one.
1. If psychedelics are considered to be spiritual, and spiritual is good, then it should be good and spiritual to do as many psychedelics as we want. This may sound right on paper, but it is hardly a guarantee in the real world. People who approach psychedelics with a spiritual attitude may be less likely to abuse them, but others may cloak rampant abuse in spiritual terms to make their destructive behavior seem more legitimate. And even those who are spiritually rigorous and limit their use still run the risk of becoming occult, messianic, megalomaniacal, and delusional in their larger spiritual beliefs. While the usual result of this process is merely a spiritual quirkiness or New Age eccentricity, it is not unheard of for these initial quirky beliefs to turn dark, experimentally risqué, and antisocial after prolonged use. There is a line that must be watched here, the spiritual argument does not hold for all personal use models.
2. The greatest untold secret of religion is that the shaman (priests) invented spirits and the spirit world in order to gain power within the tribe. Yes, it sounds cynical, but it is the truth. Think about those who invoke spirits to back up their edicts and see what you think. Invoking spirits give legitimacy to the shaman’s decrees. If the shaman thinks the tribe should move down-river he tells the tribes that the spirits want the tribe to move down river, and that they will be angered if they don’t comply. It is easy to argue with a shaman, it is harder to argue with the spirits. Since the shaman is the tribe’s mediator to the spirit world, the power to intoxicate the tribe and give them spiritual visions only enhances the shaman’s power and ability to influence the tribe by spiritual deception. With tribe members of lesser intelligence a clever shaman can have them thinking and believing whatever he tells them, and this is as true today as it was ten thousand years ago.
3. If psychedelic spiritual practice is to be rigorously imposed it must be done so in the framework of institutionalized, organized religion. The traditional shamanic model is a blend of paganism, animism, and pantheism, and it has been demonstrated by syncretic offshoots like Santo Daime that these traditional religious practices can be further blended with the practices of Christianity, Catholicism, and Buddhism to some degree of success. However, for every successful syncretic church there lies the risk of rogue cults or cult leaders who use the trappings of syncretic rituals as venues for sexual exploitation, antisocial programming, and cult brainwashing. The oversight in organized psychedelic churches must be just as rigorous if not more so than in mainstream churches; the potential for abuse of power is simply too high for this trend to go unchecked. In smaller psychedelic cults there is no oversight for spiritual abuse, so this document is their oversight. Don’t believe psychedelic gurus.
While I would say that the evidence against psychedelics as a gateway to the spirit world is overwhelming, there are many who still hold out the hope or belief that this is a viable theory. It is my assertion that people who have spiritual experiences on psychedelics have merely awakened a spiritual aspect within themselves by entering into the experience with a spiritual mind-set. The content of any psychedelic trip is typically the result of the context in which the substance is ingested and the spiritual or entheogenic trip is merely one of many possible results. Within the proper sacred ritual setting, the ingestion of a psychedelic will result in a bona-fide mystical experience and this is something we should not forget. Within this entheogenic experience the user may hear voices; see spirits and disincarnate entities; feel the presence of God or Gaia or the other; or perhaps have an astral journey where they leave their body and travel through time, to alternate dimensions, or across the barrier of life and death and into the spirit world. These are all what we would expect from a decent and fulfilling mystical experience, and it is true that psychedelics can, in the right conditions, deliver these experiences with far greater ease than any other technique known to humans. This fact is almost indisputable at this point.
The psychedelic experience is very sacred and awe-inspiring, so it seems logical that any information revealed within the experience should be considered divine in origin; all-important. And yet, when the all-important message from the spirit-journey is eventually remembered or filtered down or revealed in a sober mind-state, it is often riddle-like and vague, or something that seemed important at the time but is in reality quite mundane, or something that is fascinating or meaningful only to the subject who received the epiphany, or flat obvious to everyone else in hindsight. This muddled-message syndrome can leave the subject feeling depressed and isolated for days after any full-blown mystical psychedelic contact. Like an alien abduction, the experience is so strange and absurd and startling and crazy that people may feel unable to talk about their experiences in any meaningful way without making loved-ones worry about their sanity. It can be elating and devastating at the same instant, so how does one integrate such experiences back into the mundane doings of hard reality?
When this feeling of spiritual isolation turns outward it leads to art and story and perhaps even mythology, turning the psychedelic experience into a metaphoric icon that can be shared with others. When this isolation turns inward it becomes occult philosophy and metaphysical belief that weaves itself like a circle into pseudo-religious dogmatic forms. The cyclical path between these two outward and inward extremes should be familiar to anyone who experiments seriously with psychedelic drugs. People who use psychedelics for any length of time will also experiment with visual art, music, the manipulation of language, and the creation of occult belief systems. This ongoing process of turning entheogenic experience into shared cultural form only serves to strengthen and enlarge the archetype of the invisible landscape we think of as the “psychedelic space”. Where there was one only plant-spirits, jaguars, snakes, icaros and santitios, now there are machine elves, hyperspatial aliens, wicked jesters, trance music, and even Elvis, Mickey Mouse, Jesus, Mary, Buddha, Yahweh, and all the old-world Hindu deities along for the ride. Hence, the spirit world is not a fixed autonomous space, it is a epiphenomenona of our own cultural imagination which grows and shrinks in proportion with our own subjective cultural awareness. The psychedelic space is not autonomous, it is a reflection of who we are.
There is no doubt that there is a fundamental connection between spiritual experience and belief in a spirit world, and the more powerful the spiritual experience the more powerful the belief; this is an easy assumption to make. Since psychedelics offer such powerful spiritual experiences, it is easy to see why people view psychedelics as spiritual objects and craft elaborate rituals and mythologies regarding their use and purpose. This is a very natural human thing to do, and in many ways it is easier to invoke spirits and a spirit world than it is to believe that your brain is capable of such profound experiences.
But we must not lose sight of the fact that the human imagination allows for the infinite exploration of all possible forms, a feat which is mystical and godlike in its own capacity. By activating the human imagination in such a dramatic way, psychedelics give us raw access to that infinite well of godlike creation. When we designate psychedelic content as spiritual in origin we dismiss the wondrous capacity of the human imagination, simultaneously denigrating our own creative capacities and undermining all testable reason. It must stop.
And thus I say that we as a culture should abandon this notion of a psychedelic theology once and for all, and reject the claims of any expert or shaman or guru who claims intimate access to sacred psychedelic spirits, spirit realms, or mystical secrets. Instead of pondering over spirit dimensions and non-physical entities we should stay focused on the miracle of the human mind and the human body, and the notion that psychedelics can unlock the self-reflective power of the mind to produce infinite permutations of complex forms, for good or for bad, mystical or mundane. This is their true function and their gift, and we should not lose sight of that simple power.
Excerpted from Psychedelic Information Theory, by James Kent