Our bossy-pants, control-oriented social autocracy has always had an issue with people being naughty and messing with their own subconsciousnesses, if that is even a word. However, there is an argument to be made that psychedelic drug use is a last bastion of freedom. If someone smoked a little cigarillo and immediately experienced the sensation of red-hot needles plunging into their eyeballs, they probably wouldn’t go there again. However, the prospect of a few hours of blissful amputation from the real world of poverty, danger, fear, sadness, and futility, seems sufficient bring those repeat customers back again and again.
What if, like so many cultures did in the long-ago times before Western lifestyle intervention, we had guides to help us with the experience? You know – like, shamans, or witch doctors. What could we learn?
Well, it so happens that the research on this is beginning to open up. For example, organizations like MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) are working with researchers and governments to investigate the therapeutic potential of medicines such as MDMA, or Ecstasy, which is being used to alleviate such psychological problems as PTSD, depression, and many other ailments. And then, Johns Hopkins University recently administered psilocybin, the active chemical in magic mushrooms, to patients dealing with terminal illness. The effects seemed to reconfigure their entire perception of death, giving them peace.
So, who could’ve foretold that drugs imbibed under controlled circumstances with guides in attendance could be so … positive? Well, only just about EVERY SINGLE CULTURE ON THE PLANET, except for white Europeans. Maybe with Amsterdam being the exception there.
Okay, in a nutshell, here’s what current theory says.
Numbero uno: Darwin’s Pharmacy author, Professor Richard Doyle, following psychologist Stanislav Grof, calls psychedelics non-specific amplifiers of consciousness, whose effects are “extraordinarily sensitive to the initial rhetorical conditions” in which we take them. In other words, the subjective effects of psychedelics and marijuana are “user-constructed.” Conditions of the experience, both environmental and psychological (“set and setting”), feed back into the subjective experience of the drug trip itself. That means that it helps to be prepared, in a nice place, with helpful people in attendance.
“There is no drug effect by itself,” says Techgnosis author, media theorist and psychonaut Erik Davis. Psychedelics “simply reflect and amplify beliefs and patterns of meaning already woven into the user’s intentional ‘set’ and environmental ‘setting’…endlessly reverberating feedback loops of mind, cultural context, and compound.” Even the words we use to map and make sense of our experience, actually change our experience, in an infinite recursive feedback loop.
Briefly put, you create your own experience.
Numero two-oh: Attention. Without attention, you don’t perceive anything. Attention focused is experience. Diana Slattery has written that the capture and control of attention is “a necessary condition for any interpersonal persuasion, education, or entertainment to occur.” In a drug experience, attention is the hinge between conscious control and the patterns of reactivity that have already been set in motion by one’s own mind and/or the environment. It can be helped along by techniques such as mindfulness and self-inquiry. (I cannot help but note here, that studies of the conservative brain demonstrate that mindfulness and self-inquiry are not a thing for them.)
Numero three-oh: Feedback loops. Keep in mind that feedback loops are not just part of a drug experience. They are part of ALL our experience. Feedback loops are all-encompassing: essentially they are implicit in all of the things that we design and that surround us, from our language, to our homes, to cities, tools, aircraft, bedrooms, kitchens, and religions. And they are designing us back. It’s all part of the loop.
So: what psychedelics can do, then, says Rich Doyle, is they can make us aware of these “feedback loops between our creative choices—and our consciousness.” And thus of “the tremendous freedom we have in creating our own experience.” Timothy Leary calls this “internal freedom”.
“Using psychedelics to assist us to in perceiving and understanding the effects of culture on our consciousness, can offer an awareness of the degree to which we have the “ability to affect our own consciousness through our linguistic and creative choices.”
So we can LEARN from drug experiences by paying ATTENTION to the fact that we are being sculpted by our physical and cultural environment.
“The idea is that one can literally “steer” awareness towards transformative encounters and ecstatic revelations. There have been accounts of how a single Ketamine trip will cure even the most extreme cases of depression.”
Wow! Chew on THAT for a while, War on Drugs supporters!
Think about the single most memorably transformative experience you ever had. For an astronaut, it might be the first time he saw the whole Earth as a jewel, bedded in the black velvet of space. For an accident survivor, it might be the moment he felt surrounded by perfect love in the anticipation of imminent death. For a budding mathematician, the first time she saw the beautifully complete world of pure numbers in all its magnificence. Psychedelics seem to trigger a similar change in perspective, something that changes our sense of the big picture, and that can be as significant and profound as any transformative experience attained “naturally”.
So it can be reached. Just keep an open mind, and stop with the judgement, already. Like the War on Drugs, quite a few of our religious-civil-cultural convictions are relics, and have greatly overstayed their welcome.