Confessions of an Obligate Psychonaut

I’m a psychedelic survivor.

No, wait. I said that incorrectly.

I have survived because of psychedelics.

There, that’s better.

Now, people have varying opinions about this class of drug…and all drugs which are used by some for fun and recreation.

This is a big subject, and I hope to unpack it, but let me disclose my bias at the outset: Illegal psychedelic drugs saved my life.

True story. I’ll get into that in a minute. Settle in: it’s a long one.

The backstory of all of this, of course is Calvinism: the deep, inchoate Protestant fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.

Pleasure phobia is deeply baked into Western culture. It is hypocritical, of course, in countries awash in alcohol and caffeine, but there it is. We have demonized mind-altering substances, with only a couple of exceptions.

Fear mongering and indoctrination from an early age have frightened whole generations of people into a childish, reflexive fear of such substances which results in a number of dysfunctional responses, including an authority-flouting tendency among many young adults not only to use them, but to use them to excess and under dangerous circumstances.

Not to mention the criminalization of such usage and the wholesale railroading of millions of people–overwhelmingly people of color–into the criminal justice pipeline simply because they enjoy altering their perceptions in a manner not sanctioned by their societies. Mostly completely harmlessly.

The result of all this puritanical nonsense has in the end been complete and utter disaster, suffering and ignorance. Countless have been imprisoned, their lives ruined. Research into the beneficial uses of these substances has been choked to a tiny trickle for decades. Without study, there are only anecdotal reports and amateur research, little of which has any traction with the established canons of academia.

It has literally taken the aging of an entire generation of people who experienced psychedelics in their youth into “respectability” as doctors and scientists and litigators and legislators to mature our culture even to the point of considering that they might have some legitimate usages.

But that generational shift has happened, and now we have solid scientific evidence that drugs such as psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA have extraordinary potential for treating such conditions as PTSD and depression.

I have lived with crippling depression since elementary school, and the miserable, alternately abusive and indifferent household I grew up in—and the utter disconnect of the Baptist/Mormon foster homes thereafter—ensured that when I emerged on my own at 17 to move away and start working my way through college, I was a thorough psychological mess.

Ask anyone who knew me in my 20s. I was just…well. An offputting mix of screamingly insecure and too smart for his own good and absolutely unfamiliar with how to deal with others and flailing—flailing—to somehow come to a place of centeredness and calm. Manic, pompous, histrionic…a psychological disaster.

With a sweet heart down in there, somewhere. But under a lot of layers of pain, anger, reactivity, and bullshit. I was intermittently suicidal. I smoked like a chimney. I stepped suddenly into traffic, daring it to kill me.

I hated myself. I was on my way to dying young.

And then came MDMA.

It’s a long story, and a more personal one than I care to go into in detail. But the synopsis is what matters: a deep, loving relationship coupled with several experiences with Ecstasy over the period of two years completely changed me and my view of the world.

She was older than me by 11 years, and wise for her age. A grounded person, and deeply familiar with the emotional landscapes I floundered in. She was kind, and forgiving; creative and loving. There were things I offered (somehow) that she needed or wanted, and certainly who she was and what she offered were a desperately needed tonic to me.

It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. But it changed me forever.

Central to that change were the brief windows, six hours at a time, when the world was an exquisitely beautiful place, and I—like all of us—was a luminous, extraordinary being.

When I was on MDMA.

The marvelous thing about that experience is that after you come down, you don’t forget what you have seen. For a depressive, the ability to see the world and myself in this way was healing in a way I cannot possibly describe.

And this is the power of psychedelics. Once you have seen it, you cannot unsee it.

Now, many years later, a more whole and healthy person, I have very few opportunities and not much inclination to experiment with psychedelics. I may have done them three times in the past ten years.

But I remain permanently changed by them, and by the antidepressants I finally acquiesced to taking in the early 2000s. They, too, are psychoactive drugs, though not psychedelics. And so I call myself an obligate psychonaut: a person who depends on—indeed, cannot survive without— psychologically impactful drugs.

I do not make a moral distinction between these two classes of drugs. Indeed, I think it would be hypocrisy to do so. One was an acute intervention; the other is an ongoing support.

The result is that I am happy, functional, and the person my current friends know today.

Now.

When I created the Atheopagan Principles, there were a lot of reasons for #10: Pleasure Positivity. I believe that joy and happiness and pleasure are our birthrights: physical pleasure, emotional pleasure, intellectual pleasure, sexual pleasure. But specifically, I wanted to refuse the puritanical, joy-hating convention of the Overculture which rejects the value and legitimacy of experiences such as those we have on psychedelics.

I write all this to lay my cards on the table. I was saved by psychedelics, and I believe many others could be, too. I believe there is a deep kindness and a moral obligation for us to learn what we can about how best to deliver our fellow humans from the hells that our minds can create, and our abusers can arrange.

I support the legalization of psychedelic drugs. Yes, some will abuse them, but probably not any more than abuse them now, under the shadow of law enforcement.

And I wish—truly, I truly wish, so much—that every human on Earth could have the experience of MDMA in a loving setting. Just once.

It would change everything.


Image is “Shaman”, by Manzel

Substance Use, Background Noise, and Reenchanting the World

I’m drinking a beer as I write this.

That’s not a big deal. I’m not drunk and I don’t intend to have another. But I’m sitting at my local with a laptop, and I’m surrounded by a typical Friday afternoon crowd, which will swell considerably after 5:00.

People in my society drink. They drink alcohol, and they drink tremendous volumes of coffee. And quite a large number of them regularly smoke pot, too. I’m still getting used to the fact that it’s legal in California now, but I encounter the smell of burning weed so frequently that I don’t even register it any longer.

And though the numbers are dropping, a lot of people—particularly poor and working class people—smoke cigarettes repeatedly every day, addicted to the vicious central nervous system depressant nicotine.

I mention all this because this is “normal”. It’s background noise. It’s rarely remarked upon because here, it’s as ordinary as breathing air.

It can’t always have been so.

Humans have been pretty seriously invested in getting high by various means since the earliest days of our history. We see it in little kids, who will spin around until they fall down with dizziness, enjoying their ability to torque their ordinary sensorium into something strange and exhilarating.

Sufi Dervishes do that today, still, as a sacred rite.

When we look at the ancient world, we see places that invested tremendous resources in brewing beer and fermenting wine. In the Americas, tobacco was cultivated from at least 6,000 BCE. And in other places, intoxicants such as khat and kava and psychoactive fungi were and are carefully cultivated, all to give human consciousness a pleasurable tweak.  It is conjectured that even before we were modern humans, on the African savanna, some honey and water in a gourd canteen would inevitably have led to the discovery of mead. Alcohol has almost certainly been with us for as long as we have been human.

But I have to imagine that in all those cultures, there was a time when the intoxicants were rare and precious. And there would have been sacred rituals that grew up around them, to frame and shape the experience of taking them.

I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it resonated with me: supposedly, one of the things Native Americans who encountered European-derived settlers would say about them is that they “smoked tobacco every day”.

In other words, they turned something sacred into something ordinary.

I am a product of my culture. It’s hard for me to see alcohol and tobacco as sacred when they’re available in gross tonnage at any neighborhood store.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t.

I have always had a laissez-faire attitude about substance use in ritual. I find that personally, a single beer or glass of wine is perfect for me prior to ritual, helping to dispel stage fright, improve my ability to be in the present moment and open to my emotional self. More than that is a bad idea. I know this.

I know folks who swear by various substances as their “ritual allies”, ranging from marijuana to LSD. Some don’t do nearly as well as they think they do when altered by these substances, but others are deeply magical and amazing when on them. I have no judgment about it, so long as they aren’t messing things up for others: they’re finding their own ways.

This is meandering, but I guess where I’m going is a meditation on the sheer gluttony of our modern society. Coffee, tobacco, alcohol, chocolate and marijuana aren’t special experiences here; they are ordinary, quotidian, banal. You buy them, you consume them, you do it again.

Imagine what it would be like if only once each year, during a high festival of celebration, there was alcohol.

Or if coffee was rare and only available through initiation into the Coffee Cult.

Would that not drive us into creation of meaningful rituals and sacred moments, instead of crass banter at the bar?

There is so much about our world of instant gratification that robs us of experiences of uniqueness and magic. Our surfeit of luxuries makes us tourists, gobbling up experiences instead of savoring them and connecting them with deeper meaning about our lives.

By gouging 2.3 times the world’s resource production out of our single world each year, we have enabled ourselves—those of us who are privileged, anyway—to wallow in what would ordinarily be rare and special.

It makes us dull-witted; insensitive to the magical specialness of each of those things that should be lifetime rarities instead of daily ordinaries.

If we are to reenchant the world, we must regard everything we take for granted with new eyes. A cup of coffee is not just a cup of coffee, nor a glass of wine a glass of wine. These are alchemical dances of sun and soil and climate, brimming with chemical magic to change and enlighten us.

 

If we are to reenchant the world, we cannot be asleep. We must recognize each remarkable, unlikely gift that comes to us in our lives for what it is. We must express thanks for our food to the Earth, the Sun and the many hands that toiled to bring it to us. We must toast the brewer, and the barley farmer, and the teamster. We must know that the chocolate square, the marijuana bud, the twist of tobacco is a generous bestowal from the living Earth and from a long line of laboring hands that made it possible.

And when they wonderfully, pleasurably turn our minds to new channels, we must be grateful.

For “just” is a lie. “Just”—the trivialization of the marvelous, the assertion of ordinariness—is the mainstream culture turning magic to gray concrete and ashes.

Enjoy what you do, friends. But know that it is sacred. Know you are gifted—blessed, even—by the generosity of a world that piles gifts so deeply at your feet that it is hard to remember that each solitary one is magic.

That each one would have been the memory of a lifetime for someone 5,000 years ago.

 

Journeying in the Inner Landscape

Here at Atheopaganism, we have discussed ritual skills quite a bit. Developing the skill sets that help people to attain the Ritual State (or “trance”) is key to our ability to be  effective ritualists who can transform consciousness in empowering ways. Click here to see previous posts tagged as “Ritual Technologies and Core Skills”.

Thus far, these posts have been about using skills and technologies to induce the Ritual State. But today we turn to another question:  what to do once you get there?

Trance is powerful, and can be experienced simply as a glowing, liminal state within which to conduct ceremonial activities or contemplation…or it can be the context for ritual leaders to introduce suggestion and narrative to take participants on an internal “journey”.

This is old, old magic. It is the stuff of “spirit journeying” as practiced by many cultures throughout the world. The anthropological term for this type of activity is shamanism, from the Tunguskan word of indigenous Siberian people, for those who “journey inward” to interact with “spirit beings”: images and characters in their minds.

Anthropologically speaking, these “journeys” may involve “tunneling down through the Earth” into an Underworld, or “flying high” to reach an Overworld. The character of the experience will vary depending on the psychological nature of the journeyer. But just as in dreams, the experience can be anything that the trancing person can imagine.

The practice of this kind of “voyaging” is so ubiquitous among humans that it can be argued to be an inherent human characteristic. For after all: what is storytelling, or reading, or radio drama but verbal guidance through an inner landscape of visualization?

On your own, while in trance you can create and travel through a landscape of your choosing, and you will be surprised at the characters that will arise unbidden to meet and communicate with you. Often these are family members, ancestors, animals or fantastic beasts such as dragons. Their messages to you come from your deep mind, and are worthy of contemplating carefully.

But it is also possible to define the experience for trancing listeners: to take them on a spoken-word narrative journey to a particular place and to have a particular experience. In Western societies, we call this technique “guided meditation”.

There is an art to creating an effective guided trance journey. Participants must be relaxed and comfortable, feel safe, and then go on a “journey” to a place that feels special and unique. Often there are “guides” there, characters who impart wisdom and encouragement.

Vocal tone. When narrating or reading a guided trance journey, keep your tone low and even, melodious. Make sure that your vocal tone is consistent with being relaxed and comfortable.

Structure. Here are steps to include in a successful trance journey:

1)  Get comfortable. Participants can sit or lie down, but being physically comfortable is very important because discomfort will keep drawing attention away from the journey and back into the body.*

2)  Relaxation. Spend a few minutes relaxing the body and the mind with some simple visualizations of a calming and relaxing setting. Use descriptions of all five senses to paint a vivid picture of this place, which could be a calm meadow, a tranquil beach, or anywhere else that communicates ease and comfort.

3)  The Descent. The Descent is a trance-deepening technique used in hypnotherapy, wherein the guided instructions describe a journey, typically through a natural landscape—up a mountain, down into caves, through a forest, etc., although it can of course go anywhere.  The instructions send the journeyer deeper and deeper into relaxation and a sense of calm, present well-being. This often manifests as a “countdown”, as, “As you descend the stairs, you feel your relaxation and trance deepening: one step, then two…three…four…five. You are now completely deep in trance, relaxed and safe. You have arrived. [insert description of the setting where they have arrived].”

The Descent is sometimes an “ascent”, in that the imagery is of climbing instead of descending: up a ladder, or a tree, or stairs up, or climbing a vine or a beanstalk or simply flying up into the sky.

4) Revelation. After “arrival” at the end of the Descent, the journeyer finds what they have been seeking: animals or characters with instructive advice, magical tools or powers, wise ancestor figures, or visual images that have metaphorical meaning. Crafting this part of the guided journey is particularly sensitive, because you need to be descriptive while allowing enough flexibility for each listener’s mind to create a unique experience for that person.

(Steps 3 and 4 can be repeated if you want to guide participants to multiple “locations” before “returning” to the waking world.)

5)  Return. In the Return. the journeyer “retraces their steps” back to the relaxed setting where they began. This doesn’t have to take as much time as did the Descent.

6) Awakening. The final step in a guided meditation is gently to bring the journeyer back up out of trance and into the waking world.

Accompaniment.  Trance or guided meditation journeying is often accompanied by relaxing music or steady drumming or rattling (either a slow heartbeat rhythm, or a rapid repetitive beat), but it can also be done in silence.

Integration with larger rituals. Trance journeying can be incorporated into a larger ritual. Be aware, though, that because participants are still during the journey, it is important to have activities in the ritual to get bodies moving and “bring up the energy” after a guided meditation.

Use of psychoactive drugs. In many cultures throughout the world, shamanic journeying is associated with the usage of psychoactive drugs (also known as entheogens) such as psilocybin (mushrooms) and mescaline (cacti such as peyote and San Pedro cactus). These substances would obviously increase the vividness and emotional impact of the visualized experience. In some areas usage of these drugs is illegal.

An example.  Here is an example of a guided journey that was incorporated into this year’s Atheopagan ritual at Pantheacon, which was titled “Arming the Earth Warriors: An Activists’ Ritual”:

First, make yourself comfortable: sit or lie down, whichever you prefer. Feel the weight of your body pressing down into the Earth, and as you do, you can smell grass. You hear a soft breeze waving the grass back and forth. Back and forth.

Now, comfortable there, you can feel the kiss of a light mist on your face. It’s cool; the sunlight on your eyelids is diffuse and comfortable. It feels good here. Feel yourself relax as your breath slowly goes in and out. One breath; another; another.

Another. You are in the meadow, and you are at peace.

As you lay there, you sense a faint whiff of wood smoke. Just a bit, then it is gone. But it comes back.

You stand, and open your eyes. All around you is the mist of a low bank of clouds, settled over the meadow but steaming away under the growing sunlight. It is beautiful. Birds have begun to sing, and the trees of the forest surrounding the meadow become visible as the fog lifts.

Then you see it: the mountain. With a trail leading up.

You take a step forward, and then another. The Earth is soft and comfortable beneath your feet as you approach the trail. Your body feels strong and the pull in your legs is satisfying as you climb the mountain.

You are climbing quickly. Rounding a turn in the trail, you come to an Overlook with a wide view in two directions.

Looking out to your right, you see a magnificent vista of mountains and forests, with a twinkling lake far in the distance. This land is lush and green, healthy and beautiful. Take in the beauty of this spectacular view.

Now turn to the left.

There, the landscape is similar, but much of it is on fire. Smoke billows up into the sky, and you can see the stab of bright plumes of flame as they consume the green woodlands. Faintly, on the smoke-flavored wind, you hear the roar of the flames.

The fire is out of control, and though still far away, it is coming closer.

You turn back to the trail. You are almost at the top of the mountain. As you climb, your strong legs moving you up to the peak, you see that at the very summit there is an opening to a cave in the ground.

You step down into the cave, and go inside. There, a wide open cavern awaits you, glistening with stone draperies and stalactites. You can smell wet stone and hear the faint trickle of water. A dim glow suffuses the chamber.

On a low table of stone in the midst of the cavern chamber are some objects of metal. In the dim light, you can see that the Inspiring Activist you called out to at the beginning of our ritual is standing next to the table.

As you approach the table, your Inspiration speaks, saying, “These are for you. They will serve you well as you carry on my work and that of countless others who have come before you.” They pick up the first object, a shimmering shirt of fine chainmail links, and slide it over your head. It is light and flexible, but you can tell it is strong.

“This is the power of Humor. It will protect you from being harmed as you go forward to do what is right.” The chainmail shirt sinks into your body, becoming one with you. You feel a sudden urge to smile.

Next, they take a brilliant emerald amulet and press it against your heart. “This is the Amulet of Health. It will remind you to care for yourself, to pace yourself with patience so you can keep up the good fight for many years.” The Amulet, too, sinks into your body and you feel a surge of wellbeing.

Your Inspiration picks up a large, clear, faceted gem. “This is the Lens of Clarity. It will keep you focused on the goal, and give you a clear understanding of complicated situations.” Pressing the Lens into your forehead, they seal it with a thumb and you feel a still, wise awareness rise within you.

Finally, they raise a glittering sword with a glowing ruby pommel and press the grip into your hand.

“This is the Sword of Courage. It is an extension of your Will, and it is what will carry you through the adversity and challenges that your opponents will attempt to put in your way. It will always be available to you. It will always be at hand.”

The sword does not disappear. It rests in your hand, as power and courage course through you. You can do it. You can make a difference.

You can change the world.

You humbly thank your Inspiration for the gifts, and turn to climb out of the cave. As you descend the trail from the cave, once again you arrive at the Overlook. The fire is noticeably larger. There is much work to do, but you know you have what it takes to do it.

You descend the trail to the Meadow, where you were before. It seems different now: smaller. And you are larger, stronger, more capable.

You walk onward into the world, filled with the power of the gifts you have received, with purpose, and with grace.

Now, when you are ready, open your eyes, rise and join us in a circle, holding hands.

 

*This step isn’t always necessary. If working with a group of entranced participants who are walking about a fire. for example, you can leave them in their walking meditation while leading them through the spoken-word journey.