(Originally appeared in TRIP magazine, Fall 2001)
I’d like to paint a picture of contemporary psychedelic culture and how it relates to the larger world that we’re swimming around in. Of course, there have always been very different models of how psychedelics influence the culture at large – how they should influence it, and how they do influence it. If you go back to the Sixties, you can get the simplistic idea that the counterculture was one great wave of psychedelic experience that was united in its ethos, in its ways of thinking about what way the world should go.
That’s not really the case. There were a lot of very different subsets of people. You had people using a psychotherapeutic approach – how is this going to help us deal with individual psychology, and the psychology of groups. You had the elitist perennialism of Aldous Huxley and his school. On the other side of it, you had the Prankster approach, which was far more anarchic: "Let’s throw it all out there and see what happens, let’s spread it wide, let’s bring it all down." In the Seventies, you had the great tensions between Timothy Leary and Ram Dass. Earlier in the Sixties, Leary often played himself as a semi-guru, but later he very strongly turned away from that model, from the "custard mush" of Hindu spirituality as he called it, and embraced a kind of proto-extropian, highly technological view of the future of humanity. Whereas his former colleague, Richard Alpert, really kept the connections between psychedelic experience and a variety of mystical and spiritual traditions very closely together in his influential books and talks.
So if we look at the backstory of where we are now, we see a lot of divergence. And today we also have a great deal of divergence. You have people who are very scientifically oriented, and remain quite skeptical about the kinds of claims people traditionally make about the worlds of experience that psychedelics open up. On the other hand, you have a very strong pull towards more explicitly spiritual and even religious forms; there’s the idea that there are spirits behind these experiences, that they have a kind of collective message about the planet or the future, and that by engaging in these practices we’re learning certain kinds of truth – truths which also become packaged by certain institutions or groups. This divergence is extremely productive; iIt’s very dynamic and open-ended. In terms of what psychedelic culture presents to the larger culture, its best aspect lies in this courageous open-endedness, this dynamic lack of resolution, this constant interplay between matter and spirit, science and experience, subjectivity and chemistry.
But what does "psychedelic culture" mean today? What are its boundaries? In many ways you can look at the mainstream world and say that psychedelics won. If you look at advertising, if you look at MTV, if you look at computer graphics, if you look at a lot of things inside of the emerging cybersphere, you will find traces and sometimes overt quotations of psychedelic experience and psychedelic culture. I’m sure if you took some of the advertisements you see today for soda pop and international financial institutions back to 1967, they’d say, "Wow, that’s a blast!" If we ever know – and I do hope someday we know –the exact extent of psychedelic influence on the computer industry, I suspect we’d be amazed, not to mention vindicated. For obvious reasons, though, the story remains untold. I was talking to Lawrence Hagerty [author of "The Spirit of the Internet: Speculations on the Evolution of Global Consciousness"] who noted that Sun Microsystems is beating the pants off some of the other digital monsters out there, and Sun is one major corporation out there that doesn’t do drug testing. Very interesting.
Clearly the ideas and experiences of this culture are trickling out, producing all sorts of influences that are hard to trace. But how do we characterize that relationship? How are psychedelic experiences and psychedelic thinking engaging with our strange new century?
When we reach for a good solid model for the function of psychedelics within a larger culture, we immediately face the shaman. The shaman is a very romanticized image, very "overwritten" as the academics like to say, meaning that the term now means many different things, including scores of things totally outside of its original ethnographic context. I’m not going to go into any specifics about particular shamanic cultures, but I would like to draw sort of a general picture that relates to the question about contemporary psychedelic culture.
One thing you can say about the shaman or witch is that she lives on the edge of cultural maps. The shaman acts as a kind of interface between the specific culture of a particular tribal group and the world outside, a world that we can think of not only as nature, of course, but as the cosmic, the abstract, the alien. The witch lives at the edge of the village; in her zone, we start to move into the wild. And that’s a very potent image for being a transfer point between the outside and the inside of human culture. One of the interesting paradoxes of shamanism is that, on the one hand, it is very technological, very savvy, full of knowledges in almost a modern sense of the term, like scientific knowledge. And yet the worlds that are being produced, sustained, and performed by the shaman are extremely cultural, spiritual, mythological. Look at a healing ceremony, and think about what exactly is happening there. Let’s say that healing is occuring through the use of quartz crystals being pulled out of the body. What’s happening there? What’s really going on?
One way of looking at it is to say that the shaman is playing a two-fold game. On the one hand, he knows perfectly well what he’s actually doing, that he’s pirated a little quartz crystal in his palm, that he’s using very specific plants which have very specific properties which can produce effects, both specifically related to health and to more general psychoactive goals as well. There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge there. And yet, what does the shaman do in the actual situation of the healing? She performs. And what she performs is a whole cultural web, the glue that embeds those knowledges in lived human life. Our doctors do that too, but the package is pretty one dimensional – "take this pill, it’ll work out for you." Their knowledge is kept on the inside. What the sick person perceives is a cultural story,a cosmic metaphor, an image of the illness being removed from the body. So it’s not that the shaman is a manipulative trickster just playing games with quartz crystals. It’s that the shaman understands the technology of packaging knowledge within the cultural matrix of transformation, and performs this packaged knowledge as if it were one thing, one process of body and mind. Even a skeptic must recognize that the placebo effect plays a tremendous role in healing of all sorts, and that the art of producing the placebo effect is incredibly valuable.
Within this performance, the shaman plays a liminal role, mediating between knowledge and performance the way he mediates between outside and inside. Liminality is an anthropological concept that describes, again, a place on the edge of cultural maps, a zone between the wild and the culture, between hot and cold, between different villages. In the ancient world, crossroads were places of tremendous liminal power. People from different villages, different cultures would encounter each other there. So there’s a whole mythology of trickster figures – Hermes, Coyote, Legba, often associated with communication – who model this relationship between inside and out. The concept of liminality is crucial to understand what function and what role psychedelics play in the larger culture.
Today, many people attempting to create models for modern psychedelic use have looked to the image of shaman healer. Of course we should be wary of abusing this poor old character for our own purposes. There’s also one very important distinction, I believe, between the world view of the traditional shaman healer and what we are faced with, which is that we do not have a coherent, contained world view. We no longer have a specific cultural story that can be performed in that mythological sense. We’re at this very strange juncture in history when cultures are smashing together and flattening out. We have globalization, we have fragmentation, it’s a very open-ended situation. If there is a central error in the shamanic interpretation of modern psychedelic culture, it lies in a romantic nostalgia that wants to reconstruct or re-embody some fully coherent mythological world view.
I don’t want to say that in a way that undercuts the power of traditional myths, not to mention traditional practices and knowledges. Moreover, modern psychedelic culture has largely been defined by a relationship to non-European knowledges and cultures, and the reception of those stories and practices from the world over inform the evolving picture or cultural story about what psychedelic people are trying to do in the world. But I think that we often find a misplaced desire or tendency to want that story to be fully complete and realized, so that we then know that what we’re doing is engaging the mind of the planet, or that nature herself is telling us something. Those are valuable perceptions, but their attempt to escape the Western model can sometimes be Western transcendence – not to mention Western consumerism --- in new disguise. I think it’s very important to recognize that, at the moment, we are still intimately embedded in this tremendous, bizarre, horrible and fascinating process of technological modernity. We can see its horrible claws, its profound lacks, and there’s a desire to overcome these things quickly and fully, to chuck that framework and enter into a different kind of re-enchanted world. The desire to re-enchant our experience of the world is a profound thing that we’re all feeling. It’s incredibly legitimate. And yet, I think that the way in which we move forward with that is not by reconostructing a kind of mythological world view in the name of ancient wisdom. The psychedelic eye sees that things are already enchanted, just the way they are, fragmented and integral at once. In this sense, it is important to see psychedelic culture not as a resistence to modernity, but its own fractal edge.
One of those edges, of course, is science. Terence McKenna told me once that the most psychedelic magazine that crossed his desk was Scientific American. And if you approach psychedelics from a scientific point of view, you’re obviously dealing with material substances, with chemistry, with tiny little dynamic machines that we can describe in the institutionalized, image-free language of science. And yet, the paradox is that these compounds open up worlds which seem to pull the rug out from under the circumscribed territory of science. But yet again, we cannot fully inhabit the magical, open-ended world, because we cannot really ignore the fact that they are material compounds that enage our nervous systems, that require technical preparation if not actual synthesis. Drugs are a kind of Möbius strip: they are triggers that pull the rug out from under the world of triggers, the whole world of mechanism. And as long as we’re acknowledging the tremendous complexity and wonder belonging to the objects of natural science – and I see no reason not to – then we can never got off that strip, never resolve whether we are inside or out.
From the perspective of more materialist and scientific ways of looking at the world, psychedelics also pose a fundamental question about consciousness: do first-person perspectives have any value in our attempts to understand what consciousness is. Within contemporary neuroscience, there is a tremendous tendency to deny and even denigrate first-person experience as a valid way of understanding what’s happening in consciousness; we can only really talk about it from a third-person perspective. For someone like Daniel Dennett, any sort of internal information you get from meditation, from drugs, or from just paying attention is not really worth very much because the brain is fooling us all the time. Also, our subjective flow does not lend itself very well the kinds of frameworks that a hardhead like Dennett prefers. But to study the neurology of psychedelics without taking them would be absurd: first person is essential. Psychedelics open up a gate inside of the scientific worldview: the gate is chemical, but what comes in that gate cannot be captured by current models, at least in my view. In other words, in the attempt to create a complete scientific model of consciousness, neuroscientists must investigate the fringes of consciousness: dreams, mysticism, psychedelics, precisely those modes of consciousness that, potentially, most undermine and resist science as it is narrowly conceived. So today there’s a growing discussion of the neurology of mysticism, like the recent cover story of Newsweek on "God and the brain." Though they did not raise the issue of psychedelics at all, it seems that we’re beginning to get workable third-person descriptions of a lot of what’s going on behind some of the most exalted and powerful states that human beings can achieve. One might say that all this simply confirms the view that it’s all in the brain. But what it’s also confirming is the experiential reality of these altered states, which only puts them on a more solid footing inside our technoscientific culture. The third person in the lab becomes the first person on the streets.
The resistence ot the first person also feeds into one of the more frightening aspects of our culture, which is the tendency towards controlling people from the outside. You find it in government, you find it in science, you find it in psychotherapy, you find it in motivational speaking, you find it in all sorts of places. This tendency says, "Well, all you have to do is trigger human beings a certain way and they will be happy or they will be productive." And so the tendency to think about consciousness from a strictly third-person point of view also plays into the hands of the people who believe they can use third-person perspectives in order to perfect control.
What happens when you step across that line and say, "This is absurd, of course I’m going to plunge into my own individual stream of consciousness and make inferences, make discoveries, explore myself, explore social interaction from the perspective of these evolving states – especially the novel ones." Even if you believe these states are primarily material, you have already affirmed the primary importance of subjective experience as the floating ground you stand on in order to embrace, instruct, understand, and relate to the world. So there’s the paradox. Hard core third-person scientists are inevitably fascinated by and drawn to these compounds, if for no other reason than the fact that they have to account for their action. And yet, the closer you get to these substances, the more they pull you into a very different kind of world, and the more difficult it becomes, perhaps, to account for the phenomenon from a purely "thinking machine" perspective. Psychedelics may be eating away and eroding some of the more reductive tendencies inside of brain science.
SET & SETTING
How do these compounds pull the rug out from under a mechanistic cosmology? We all know about set and setting, which play a tremendously powerful role in producing experience. But set and setting are not strictly mechanistic elements. They’re cultural activities, dynamic and open-ended -- narratives, dramas. They have to do with meaning. Even from a skeptical point of view, anyone who’s really investigating psychedelic phenomenon will recognize that your own mind frame, and your own environmental setting, will help produce a qualitatively different set of events. So there’s no way to fully account for that from the perspective of brain science alone. You have to go to culture. If you think its all just neural programming, then the story "It’s all just neural programming" becomes your set. You can’t escape the shaman’s performance, the fact that it looks like I’m pulling a quartz crystal out of your body. Set and setting open up this whole problem or issue of self-programming, of programming your environment, and the role of intentionality. And all of those elements -- especially intentionality -- are extremely vital for us to keep in the center of our vision as we face what I often fear will be a fairly concerted attack on individual liberties and the liberties of consciousness itself.
Again, though, there’s kind of an interesting problem, which is the same problem that I talked about earlier regarding the shamanic worldview. If we were in a traditional society, the framework, the intention, the set and setting would basically be a given. We are brought up in it, we already know to some extent what’s going on, what’s going to happen with these experiences. They can be organized and explained and integrated, because we already have that map. It’s in the background. You can think of the shaman as a technician of culture, who knows how to maintain that cultural reality using techniques that are not necessarily included in that cultural reality, even using tricks to maintain that perception for the tribe. But we don’t have that option any more. We have science as the background, which means we can address the neuropharmacology of psychedelics. But the meaning of the experience, a meaning we have no choice but to confront? But how? What is our intention? What is the frame? What is the set and setting?
THE CORPORATE STATE
How does the liminal role of psychedelics play into the issue of policy and the law? It’s interesting to look at the role of psychedelic culture within the larger story of drugs as constructed by the state, especially those insitutions fighting the war on drugs. What interests me is that in some ways, the prohibition against psychedelics is not a bad thing. And I don’t mean that to say that it’s not bad that people are being incarcerated and having their lives ruined. Obviously major suffering goes down.Nonetheless, prohibition puts psychedelic culture in a very curious place inside the larger cultural framework, and that place has some very productive aspects to it.
For one thing, prohibition avoids some of the problems that occur with any sort of mainstream or corporate or state-oriented manipulation of psychoactive substances. I’m not entirely sure I believe myself on this one, but I do think it’s an interesting issue to raise. When Rick Doblin [founder and president of MAPS] was talking about his plan to make MDMA legal [at the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation's "The State of Ecstasy" conference], he presented a very sophisticated and interesting plan. But at the end of his talk he described his vision of "Ecstasy clinics," where people would go for legitimate reasons to be determined by some official body. There you’d have nice paintings and kind, trained people who’d help you through your potentially life-changing experiences. When I heard this, I had a weird feeling inside, a strange little shiver, like, "Okay, but I don’t think that that’s all of it."
The ecstasy debate is taking place alongside the transformation of the corporate culture of psychoactivity and psychoactive drugs. If you look at Prozac, if you look at Ritalin, you see that there is a willingness inside of civilization -- or whatever you want to call our particular monster -- to willingly use powerful psychoactive drugs in order to produce -- ie "restore" -- certain normative models of behavior, happiness, and satisfaction. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with happiness or satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing profoundly dysfunctional behaviors and finding ways, even very technological ways, of overcoming those behaviors. Nonetheless, there is something queasy that happens when those activities and those subjective possibilities become incorporated into the machinery of the state. And by the state, I don’t just mean the government. I am not speaking as a free market libertarian here. I also mean the large corporate state that we live in, the universe of Big Pharma.
So there’s a profound difference between decriminalization and legalization, and I think the anti-prohibition movement needs to start addressing some of these questions more critically. Legalization implies the incorporation od drugs inside the regulatory regime of big medicine and mainstream corporate culture, which needs to create "disorders" in order to proscribe commodity fixes. At the moment, of course, people are suffering needlessly from the venal War on Drugs, and we have to fight the anti-prohibition battle. I’m not talking about keeping things the way they are. But I don’t think it’s an accident, politically or spiritually, that the legal status of psychedelics is liminal – rarely targeted by other drugs, increasingly investigated by science, yet still illegal and, to some degree, marked by social stigma.
In this sense, MDMA exists in a very different category than psychedelics, one that the lies between the crazy world of bewildered toad-licking freaks and suburban moms popping Prozac. That’s why we now see mainstream media going, "This stuff’s not so bad!" The New York Times, Time magazine: "Hmm, you know, it’s not that different from the serotonin-based SSRIs and such." But another reason for this mild but delightful mainstream move toward balance is that Ecstasy by itself, though incredibly productive and marvelous, does not puncture consensus reality the way psychedelics puncture consensus reality. And so I don’t think it’s an accident that its not so hard to imagine Ecstasy being officially integrated into our current psychoactive environment. But as soon as you start to integrate it, then it becomes manipulated by the institutionalized cultural machine, which has agendas that have nothing to do necessarily with you feeling better, with you discovering more love and intimacy or pleasure in your life. Whatever good it does, it also becomes a regulatory mechanism, a way of managing human subjectivity in an increasingly dense and chaotic social environment.
Psychedelics retain their unique power because they’re difficult to fully integrate into that regulatory framework. One of the things that is the most productive about them is that they’re going to puncture your consensus reality. Even if you are primed with E, they’re going to knock you out of whatever your given structure is, even those wise psychedelic models of healing or spirituality. You think you’re going to get the great earth momma embracing you in some kind of jaguar-rich forest, and you get sucked into some sort of interdimensional wormhole built by malevolent-looking insectoid goofballs, and you go, "But I was going for the nature vibe!" That’s great. It’s that pulling the rug out from under you. Its not in the visions; its not in the stories. It’s in the cracks and gaps that open up onto something exceptionally difficult to experience or explain.
RELIGION & SPIRITUALITY
The final zone I want to talk about in terms of psychedelic liminality is religion or spirituality, which I’d like to talk about in terms of the mystery religions of late antiquity. Many people have drawn very valid connections between the last few centuries of the Roman Empire and the world today. You have a globalized environment full of different kinds of people, along with a sort of mechanized state that is very efficient but rotten at the core. You have a very urban environment, in which many different kinds of people are coming together, and that pulls people out of their tribal connections to the rural places they come from. There’s a lot more movement in the empire. And it’s in this environment that you see the rise of the mystery religions, like Mithraism or Isis worship or gnosticism. Of course, there is also the famous mystery religion of Eleusis, which plays a very important role in the contemporary psychedelic story, but was actually much older than most of the mystery religions I am discussing. But in the waning centuries of the Roman empire, people fed their evident religious hunger and sense of spiritual dislocation by turning toward these exotic sects that promised, at the heart of the whole operation, an otherworldly experience. There was a desire for an experience of the self that went beyond the body, beyond the visible world, that seems very similar to today’s embrace of meditation, yoga and psychedelics.
So were they tripping? For me, that’s not the point. There is a tendency within psychedelic research, particularly the historical stuff, to assert that behind these vast religious mysteries across the globe lurk some kind of substance that’s "actually" producing spiritual experiences. Of course, we know there’s something botanical going on with soma, we know there’s something going on with Eleusis; there’s little fragments of it here and there, and of course we want to reconstruct what was actually going on. But this can also be very reductive, and in this way, we’re very modern. We’re still looking for the mechanism.
It’s my belief that once you take into account the way that cultural reality can program or set up a certain set of expectations, then you actually don’t need many chemicals thrown into the mix in order to produce a tremendously powerful experience. I find it unfortunate when psychedelic thinkers claims that real spirituality is just the psychedelic experience, and that everything else we see in religion is a pale reflection of the experience, either an attempt to reproduce it using cruder, slower, and to replace it entirely with crusty, dogmatic ideology. I mean, in some ways I think that’s probably an accurate description in a lot of cases, but I think it also misses a lot. And one of the things it misses are those stories and cultural frameworks that form the matrix for these experiences. By over emphasizing the "secret mushroom" behind iconography or in the eucharist, we tend to undercut the productive role of meaning, of those ongoing cultural frameworks that always shape our experiences. Though psychedelics are clearly universal in their action, the experiences that result are never completely purified of cultural and historical forces.
Another issue that’s raised by the mystery religions is the larger question about the importance of spiritual experience in the first place? It’s a pretty standard idea that we have spirituality over here, and we have religion over there. Spirituality is about your experiences: your mystical insights, the immediacy of spirit, gnosis. The real deal. Whereas religion we associate with institutional frameworks, with collective stories, with power relations, with established social relationships. And there’s this curious sort of balance between the two. At the heart of it the mystery religions is something like gnosis, a radical experience. Maybe it’s produced through a substance, maybe not. But there is an experience, a direct taste of the divine, of the otherworldly. And yet, again, it is embedded in this whole set of stories, practices and social frameworks. This context helps produce the shape of those experiences, and, far more importantly, helps integrate the residue of those experiences into ordinary life.
There’s a tendency inside of psychedelic spirituality, very strong and understandable, to say, "Now we are getting the goods, now we can skip all that ‘religion’ stuff and get right to the heart of it. We can go spiritual, we don’t need religion." But I’m not entirely sure that the problem ends there, because without certain frameworks for understanding and integrating experience, then even the most profound state of gnosis can become nothing more than a kind of wacky hedonism. Nothing wrong with hedonism, mind you, and we don’t hear nearly enough about the profound pleasures of spirituality. But taking any substance in a de-mythologized environment, where you’re buying a piece of blotter or taking a pill, can easily become a mechanistic repetition. It can lose any edge of genuine openness and integration, and become a kind of video game.
I don’t have an answer for any of this, because I don’t know what the right frameworks are. I don’t know what the big maps are, and I tend, like most of us perhaps, to be rather distrustful of people who think they know. If you look at some Brazilian ayahuasca sects, you find some very interesting things happening there from a religious anthropology perspective. And yet, it doesn’t take much interaction with them to see things that at least from a Western perspective are difficult: institutional hierarchies, authorities judging good experiences from bad, and organizing the narrative of the trip according to set ideas. These sects actually aid people in a lot of ways, even Euro-Americans. And yet some people in psychedelic culture are uncomfortable with formalized psychedelia, and with the ecological religiosity of the ayahuasca scene. So once again we are "in betwixt, in between": we know that we need frames, we know that by accepting and creating a spiritual environment, a spiritual story, the experiences themselves will have a much greater richness. (I mean, sometimes they’ll just come in and do whatever they’re going to do anyway.) And yet, what is our frame? What story should we be telling ourselves? Maybe the technical knowledge of set and setting itself already undermines the potential authenticity of experience dependent on set and setting.
I’m not sure whether the kinds of frameworks that we have so far are sufficient. One of them is the therapeutic model. Again, incredibly productive, and yet I’m not always so sure whether that is getting at the real heart of the spiritual potential of these molecules, to say nothing of their pleasures. There is still this emphasis on self-actualization, when I suspect that what psychedelics actualize may not be the self, at least in any conventional sense of the term.
Another example is rave culture, which is probably the best example of a kind of mass movement of people having serious psychoactive experiences. And raves in many ways are machines. They are designed in certain ways to produce trance effects, to derange everyday perceptual patterns, to key off archetypal experience with certain kinds of images. The drugs plug into the music and the music plugs into the drugs, and as the drugs and media evolve, they co-create these new environments and experiences. I don’t think you have to be too much of a worrywart to look at some aspects of rave culture, and wonder, what are they really doing? What is this for? What’s going on here? Trance is a two-edge sword.
So the question that tugs me is: Are there psychedelic values, and how can you communicate them? There does seem to be certain kinds of values and ethics that many people develop after a long, careful apprenticeship with these things. Meeting individuals from older generations, there’s certain things you pick up, a certain kind of openness and tolerance, a sweetness and a mirth. To me these point to some core values, even if they are too unspoken to even be considered values. But I suspect its pretty hard to transmit these values, and I don’t think the counterculture generation has done a very good job here. But is there a way to transmit these things? Or is it all just out of control? As soon as you start to try to control and define these values, then you make it more like religion. And yet, we have to acknowledge the chaotic effects of introducing psychedelics into youth culture without those contexts of meaning and ritual.
One of the good things about the old mystery religions is that they’re esoteric. There are levels of secrecy, even when the movement is popular. In order to work yourself up to the encounter, the experience, you have to go through a lot of social interaction, a lot of preparation, a lot of priming yourself for an encounter with what will always remain beyond your ken. And that structure also allows the production of wisdom people, whether you call them shamans, masters, of just people who know their stuff, and who pass on their knowledge and experience through organic, small-scale networks. There are mentors and apprentices, and those apprentices are able to reproduce those environments, changing them always slightly as the culture itself transforms. That kind of hermeticism still goes on, and it’s vital that it does go on –secret pockets and hidden social networks are vital to the continual richening of psychedelic culture and its influence on an increasingly psychoactive culture at large. At the same time, the genie is definitely out of the bottle. We live amidst a massive transformation of information networks, cultural, biological, and technological. It’s much easier to pluck potent and esoteric information out of the ether that in a more traditional society, where it would be guarded by the wacky alchemists, the witch at the edge of the village. They would be protecting their own game, but also insuring that information transfer occurs within a larger context, a more organic framework. Today everything hidden is becoming known. It’s all open, which means we are all liminal. The margins are mainstream, and every point is the center of things, which is another way of saying that we are all in between.