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A Treatise on Psychedelics Pt. 1/3: The Stigma

The true student of science neglects nothing and despises nothing that may widen and deepen his knowledge of nature, and if he is wise as well as learned he will hesitate before he applies the term “impossible” to any facts which are widely believed and have been repeatedly observed by men as intelligent and honest as himself.

Alfred Russel Wallace, “Are the Phenomena of Spiritualism in Harmony with Science?”

Some time ago I was in the right place at the right time by attending the Interdisciplinary Conference on Psychedelic Research in Amsterdam orchestrated by Stichting Open. For those who don’t know, psychedelic is Greek for “manifesting mind” and is commonly used to indicate consciousness altering plants and chemicals like, to name a few of the more popular, DMT, Psilocybin, LSD, MDMA, Ketamine and Ayahuasca. The conference featured a wonderful mix of researchers, philosophers, health care workers and students that had a genuine interest in the positive power these plant teachers can have on their users.

While I had taken Entheogens before (another word to coin the same category of substances, meaning, “Realizing the Divine within”) as part of my spiritual investigations, I never truly delved deeper into the larger implications of the “ecodelic” insight, which draws our attention to the “Whole” or to the “Gaian Mind”. By attending the conference and my subsequent search for understanding, I ventured deeper into the widespread interconnections between ourselves and the psycho-active ecosystem that is all around us. How do these substances function? How are we to interpret the peculiar trip reports of psychonauts (the brave pioneers who explore the mind space)? Why are such practices criminalized and stigmatized? And what does the war on drugs mean for the continuing evolution of the human species? In this three part series I try to come back to these questions, not in order to give clear and concise answers but rather to open up a space where these ideas can flourish and have polyamorous sex with one another.

Now why would I want such a thing? Well, it is my sincere belief that the solution for the problems (overpopulation, ecological destruction, cultural purposelessness, global warming and the list goes on) we face today are not to be found in the techno-scientific-materialistic ideology which gazes upon us from every corner of our modern “democracy”. Instead, it is to be found in a mutation of consciousness, of a shift towards the spiritual if you will, an information revolution unfiltered by the power practices of our current failing institutions, whether they are economic, religious or scientific. Experimentation with ideas, states of minds and ways of living, and by exploring the “Infinite internal freedom” as the late Timothy Leary used to say, are a necessary component to heal the industrial trauma that still keeps intensifying to this day. Psychedelics can aid us in this imperative of change. Psychedelic compounds like Ayahuasca, Ibogaine and LSD are used, with great success, as a de-conditioning and de-patterning cure for heroin, cocaine and alcohol addiction. But are all of us not addicted to perpetually consuming the entire planet? Are you stuck in a pattern where you don’t seem to be able to drop out from?

But right now our cognitive liberties are under attack. The war on drugs is a war on consciousness itself. The very medicine that can help to cure our cultural diseases is criminalized. When we are not free to experiment with different states of mind we are more likely to be hypnotized into submission through mass media and propaganda. Our own nervous system is being held tight in an ideological straight-jacket – our “reality tunnel” is fixed. How come this is still the case?

According to the lecture given at the psychedelic conference by Professor Hanegraaff, we are blinded by cultural prejudices that distort our thinking about mind altering and expanding substances. Because of this, the catalystic power of entheogens is still often misunderstood and intentionally suppressed. He distinguishes the following three prejudices that still lie dormant in many of our attitudes today:

  • The Crypto-Protestant prejudice: This prejudice is a remainder of the Theological battle against Paganism. It was based on the belief that mystical experiences, such as the ones often reported after ingesting ‘hallucinogens’, should be the result of divine grace. If someone was receptive enough then such an experience would occur in a ‘natural‘ way, whatever that actually entails. Human intervention, on the other hand, which was seen as magical manipulation, was of course a very dangerous thing for institutions like the church to allow (and in the same way for the state in the sixties). It is the same reason today why consumer-capitalism cannot incorporate these (r)evolutionary tools. However, these arguments are relics of the Christian era; it is based on the belief that no human should have the power to enter the realm of the Spirit themselves. This Knowledge should be mediated by the priests and church. Yet, it is worth noting that many indigenous and also suppressed cultures strongly disagree (Notice for instance that their name for magic mushrooms is “flesh of the Gods”.)
  • The Idealist prejudice: This prejudice is about the dualistic separation of spirit and matter. How can something that is obviously material, an organic or chemical structure ingested by our bodies, have an effect on anything related to the spiritual? It cannot be the real thing, it must be a method to cheat ourselves into believing it is a true mystical experience. Yet, there is no way to distinguish a genuine from a fake mystical experience. This worrying about the truthfulness of an experience distracts us from the fact that mystical experiences caused by entheogens still causes all the effects that make up a such an experience (oneness, sacredness, contact with the divine etc). The focus should be on the experience itself, regardless of the mechanism or method that induced it.
  • The Drug prejudice: This prejudice is based on a reified category versus actual diversity. Political rhetorics uses propaganda to semantically falsify that which threatens it, thus it places psychedelics in Schedule 1, a category of drugs with no positive medical use. However, this in no way resembles our scientific evidence. Ecodelics don’t cause addiction, criminal syndicates or deaths, yet they can cure depression, cluster headaches, death anxiety and strong addictions. The fact that some intoxicants challenge our deeply held assumptions is not reason enough to deny the ever-growing body of evidence that there are big differences between different types of drugs and that some of these, if used with the right intention in the right context, can actually be extremely beneficial for their users and society at large.

If we look further than these prejudices however, we see the increased tendency of the state to intervene in the “life”, “health” and “well-being” of its citizens. This is part of what the philosopher Michel Foucault dubbed “biopower” – the use of the life sciences to control and predict living systems. The war on drugs extends this power even further into the realm of consciousness itself. This explains the fact that while the state proclaims they want to reduce the “potential for harm and abuse” they still allow for alcohol and tobacco to be used, drugs that cause much more harm and abuse than cannabis or DMT. Terence Mckenna famously hypothesized that this was the case because drugs like caffeine and sugar reinforce capitalist values in our collective consciousness whereas psychedelics do the complete opposite.

In the next part of this three part article I will go into the liberating aspects of these neurochemical keys and how they unlock different aspects of our psyche. 

Check out the Psychedelic Salon podcast and the book Darwin’s Pharmacy by Richard Doyle. Both sources have brought me many new ideas, without which this article would have never seen the light of day. I can not recommend both highly enough.

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