The following is an excerpt from Paul Devereux’s The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK), reprinted with permission. The Long Trip is…
…probably the most comprehensive single volume to look at the use of mind-altering drugs, or entheogens, for ritual and shamanistic purposes throughout humanity’s long story, while casting withering sidelong glances at our own times – as Paul Devereux points out, our modern mainstream culture is eccentric in its refusal to integrate the profound experiences offered by these natural substances into its own spiritual life.
by Paul Devereux
Societies of the past have used the psychedelic experience to strengthen, renew and heal the spiritual underpinning of their social structures. The ever-deepening social unease that Western civilisation seems to be caught in is the real source of our ‘drug problem’: natural hallucinogens are not the problems in themselves, it is the context in which they are used that matters. If there were orderly and healthy structures and mechanisms for their use and the cultural absorption of the powerful experiences – and knowledge – we could separate these from the culture of crime that surrounds them now. In short, the problems are not in the psychoactive substances themselves, but in a society, which on the one hand wants to prohibit, mind-expansion altogether and on the other chooses to use mind-expanding substances in a literally mindless, hedonistic fashion.
Perhaps only a shock of some kind could break our society free from the patterns of thought and prejudices that lock it into this crisis. The desire for such a shock may be hidden within the widespread modern myth of extra-terrestrial intervention. In fact, we do not have to look to science fiction for a real otherworld contact: it already exists in the form of plant hallucinogens. If we see them in the context of a ‘problem’, it is only because they hold up a mirror in which we see our spiritual, social and mental condition reflected. And they hold that mirror up to us as one species to another just as surely as if they were from another planet. Indeed, that champion of the psychedelic state, the late Terence McKenna, argued that the ancestral spores of today’s hallucinogenic mushrooms may have originated on some other planet. (This is not as fringe an idea as it sounds, for even some ‘hard scientists’ – the late Francis Crick, co-discover of DNA, among them – have suggested that the germs of life may have had extra-terrestrial origins, brought to Earth by means of meteorites or comet dust.) The psilocybin family of hallucinogens, says McKenna, produces a “Logos-like phenomenon of an interior voice that seems to be almost a superhuman agency…an entity so far beyond the normal structure of the ego that if it is not an extraterrestrial it might as well be.”
Other ‘psychonauts’ have emerged from the altered mind states enabled by plant substances with similar impressions. For instance, New York journalist Daniel Pinchbeck wrote about his various initiations with plant hallucinogens in his Breaking Open the Head (2002). In one ayahuasca session with Amazonian Secoya Indians he found himself wandering in a visionary space where he encountered beings that “never stopped changing” their forms. “The shaman and the elders seemed to be inhabiting this space with me… They sang, their words unintelligible, to these creatures, interacting with them… I had no more doubts that the Secoya engaged in extradimensional exploration.” Or, again, two of the three molecular biologists brought to the Amazon to experience ayahuasca trances by anthropologist and writer, Jeremy Narby, felt that they had communicated with an “independent intelligence.” Narby himself feels that in their ayahuasca altered states shamans plumb the molecular level of nature and that, to put Narby’s idea crudely, ayahuasca – with its trade-mark visionary snakes – has the ability to communicate information concerning the double-helix coil of DNA (The Cosmic Serpent, 1998). Indeed, to allow contact with the “mind of nature.”
We have already noted that the idea that ontologically independent beings (‘spirits’) or intelligences are contactable through plant-induced trances is standard in most if not all shamanic tribal societies, but to posit such a thing in modern Western societies is viewed as tantamount to insanity, a nonsense notion to be dismissed out of hand. In other words, we can’t discuss it without forfeiting all credibility. This problem concerning the inability to explore certain ideas has been addressed by Oxford-based researcher, Andy Letcher. He uses Foucauldian discourse analysis to critique the models, the ‘discourses’ employed by the West in dealing with the content of altered mind states. These include pathological, prohibition, psychological, recreational, psychedelic, entheogenic discourses. Each has its own imposed boundaries; they are cognitive constructs. Letcher notes that some of these discourses or approaches to hallucinogenic substances ignore the subjective experience of the altered mind states involved, or else place it within an inner, psychological framework rather than it being a case of simply seeing more, of being in a wider frame of consciousness. He critiques even the entheogenic discourse as relying on a “God within” model, divine revelation that does not by any means occur in all altered states. However diverse they might be, all these discourses can be used within the norms of Western culture. Only one discourse crosses that “fundamental societal boundary,” what Letcher refers to as the animistic discourse – the belief that the taking of, say, hallucinogenic mushrooms occasions actual “encounters with discarnate spirit entities.” Because of the deep-rooted modern Western assumption that consciousness cannot occur in any other guise than human (the ultimate hubris of our species, perhaps) discussion of a conscious plant kingdom, or of that providing a portal through which contact with other, ontologically independent beings or intelligences can occur, is simply not possible within the mainstream culture. “It nevertheless remains a phenomenon in need of further scholarly research,” Letcher rightly insists.
It is a remarkable fact that plant hallucinogens are hallucinogenic precisely because they contain the same, or effectively the same, chemicals as are found in the human brain, and so act on us as if we were indeed engaged in an interspecies communication. “The chemical structure of the hallucinogenic principles of the mushrooms was determined…and it was found that these compounds were closely related chemically to substances occurring naturally in the brain which play a major role in the regulation of psychic functions,” Schultes and Hofmann have observed, for instance. This challenges the view held by many people that taking a plant hallucinogen is somehow ‘unnatural’. Certainly, mind-altering plants take the brain-mind to states that are not “normal” by the standards of our culture, but the ‘normal’ state of Western consciousness cannot claim to be the one-and-only ‘true’ state of consciousness. (Indeed, judging by the mess we manage to make of our societies and of the natural world around us it may even be an aberrant or pathological state of mind that we are culturally locked into.)
“If one were to reduce to its essentials the complex chemical process that occurs when an external psychoactive drug such as psilocybin reaches the brain, it would then be said that the drug, being structurally closely related to the naturally occurring indoles in the brain, appears to interact with the latter in such a way as to lock a nonordinary or inward-directed state of consciousness temporarily into place… There are obviously wide implications, biological-evolutionary as well as philosophical, in the discovery that precisely in the chemistry of consciousness we are kin to the plant kingdom,” writes Peter Furst.
These are probably the same kind of chemical changes that occur during the course of long and intensive spiritual exercises, but it takes a rare person to achieve sufficient expertise in such techniques to arrive at experiences that match those accessible through hallucinogen usage, which are certainly very ‘real’ in a subjective sense. It is a culturally-engineered cliché to dismiss such states as being somehow delusional. They are subjectively no more delusional than the experience of daily life. The human body is an open system, taking in material from the environment and expelling matter into it all the time, and we really shouldn’t think of taking in natural chemicals for visionary and mind-expanding functioning as any different, any less natural, than taking in gases from the air for their chemical benefits to the body, or chemicals and compounds in animal and vegetable matter to provide food, or fermented fruits and vegetable matter to provide delicious, refreshing or inebriating beverages, or vitamins to augment healthy functioning, or medicines when we are ill, or caffeinated teas and coffees when we want to be energised. “Ethnobotanists now realize that psychotropic plant species extend further than had been suspected, as though nature truly wanted the human species to get in touch with its floral neighbors,” Richard Gehr muses. “As plant species die off at a furious rate, the issue is no longer what they are trying to tell us, but whether we will get the message in time.”
That message may be to do with the need for us to change our minds, or, at least, to broaden our cognitive horizons. The plant kingdom could be urging us to allow the ability to ‘switch channels’ in consciousness terms to let them become a recognised and acceptable part of our emerging global culture. Hallucinogen-using ancient and traditional societies had and have exceptional sophistication when it comes to understanding and navigating alternate states of consciousness, whereas we are still quite primitive and inexperienced in this regard. The manual for using expanded consciousness is a textbook we have not read – or, more accurately, recalled. Not that simply widening our collective experience of consciousness will act like a magic wand and remove all problems and obstacles, but it would help us to make wiser, more whole-some decisions in coping with them. If Western civilisation is truly to advance, we surely must learn to operate within the multi-dimensional capacities of our minds, rather than using the police to conduct an indiscriminate war on the means of doing so. A workable balance has to be struck between protecting the well-being and the orderly functioning of society as a whole, and allowing the human brain-mind to explore its full potential. We are smart enough and complex enough and able enough to make it possible to do both. There are no excuses.