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Psychedelic Information Theory

Shamanism in the Age of Reason

Psychedelics : Appendix

Why are Psychedelics Spiritual?

Figure 1 : Pictures of the shaman from four different traditions: Tartar, Native American, Siberian, and Yakut. All use drums to control the tempo of the sacred ceremony.

There is an ideological split about the nature of psychedelic spirituality. The scientific or reductive view posits that psychedelics are at best hallucinogens and at worst toxins, and that any spiritual benefits derived from psychedelics are psychosomatic fabrications of the subject’s mind. The entheogenic or shamanic view posits that psychedelics are ritual sacraments that open the user to hidden spirit powers and wisdom (Fig. 1). This ideological split need not exist because both of these views are essentially correct; psychedelics are toxins and they are hallucinogens, but they also offer experiences of spiritual transcendence and mystical insight. Although psychedelics are drugs, they are also undoubtedly spiritual.

For proof that psychedelics are spiritual you can look to two different Harvard studies with psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. The first was the “Good Friday Experiment” carried out by Walter Pahnke in 1962,1 the second was a study on the long-term effects of psilocybin by Roland Griffiths in 2006.2,15 Both of these experiments and long-term follow-ups demonstrate that in the proper setting psilocybin has spiritual effects with positive benefits that may last a lifetime. Subjective reports from Rick Strassman’s studies with DMT in the early 1990s indicate that in the proper setting psychedelics have a powerful ability to manifest visions of disincarnate entities and spirit dimensions in a matter of seconds.3 Combining these modern studies with traditional shamanic beliefs it is impossible to dismiss the spiritual nature of psychedelics; it is a fact that can be demonstrated by scientific experiment.

If we accept that psychedelics are spiritual, and that spiritual experience has therapeutic value, then the elements of psychedelic spirituality should be reducible in a way that applies to all people regardless of spiritual faith and belief. Psychedelic spirituality can be applied to any religious belief or mythology, but the core mystical elements of a psychedelic trip are the same for everyone. The following is a basic list of psychedelic spiritual experiences and what they mean to the subject.

Ego Death

Ego Death, or identity sublimation, is the loss of the sense of self or loss of personal identity. In this state the subject forgets who they are, or sees their identity from the removed perspective of someone observing a fictional character. Ego death allows the subject to drop the mask of identity and experience immediate sensation as an organism devoid of prejudice or anxiety. This sensation can be both disorienting or liberating.

Is ego death therapeutic? In most cases having a removed perspective of identity can be insightful. People undergoing ego death often perceive their identities as small or trapped in cultural rationales and anxieties. Exposing these external ego restraints allows the subject to adopt a more transpersonal view of their own existence and self worth. Is ego death spiritual? For some people ego death is the ultimate in spiritual experience. Common wisdom states that ego death is the first step towards all other levels of psychedelic mystical experience, but this is not necessarily true. Ego death can be spiritually rewarding, but it does not require the presence of actual spirits to have an impact. Can ego death be harmful? The greatest source of psychedelic anxiety is the worry that the subject will lose control and never return to sanity. If a subject is unable to deal with the experience of ego death then they will have a difficult time with psychedelics and psychedelic spirituality. For people with traumatic pasts the superficial ego may be the only thing keeping them from complete emotional breakdown; temporarily suspending a fragile ego may manifest in acute anxiety, panic, and pathological behavior.

Interconnectedness

Interconnectedness is sometimes known as unity, boundary dissolution, or non-dualistic enlightenment, and manifests in the realization that the subject and the universe are an interconnected whole. Like the realization that ego is an elaborate fabrication, the sensation of interconnectedness is immediately understood to be Truth. The notion of interconnectedness meshes with Buddhism, Eastern mysticism, Gnosticism, as well as basic molecular biology and physics; it is no great leap to make this realization once traditional ego boundaries have been dissolved.

Is interconnectedness therapeutic? Almost certainly. Feeling an intense interconnection with other organisms and your environment promotes humility, respect, and sustainable living habits. Is interconnectedness spiritual? Unity is often described in terms of becoming one with the mind of God, or experiencing the true size and nature of the universe from a first-person perspective. There is often a sense of overpowering love and acceptance that accompanies interconnectedness, and feelings of interconnectedness are the source of transpersonal states of empathy and compassion. Even if literal disembodied spirits are not perceived, the presence of a great loving intelligence or universal consciousness that penetrates everything can be spiritually overpowering. Can interconnectedness be harmful? Unity, compassion, and empathy are widely regarded as positive traits, even saintly traits. In industrialized societies human culture has adapted to minimize notions of universal interconnectedness in favor of systems of categorization and specialization, perhaps to pathological extremes. While unity and interconnectedness may seem like the solution to modern industrialism, interconnectedness can lead to extreme selflessness, which may be perceived as saintly but is arguably just as pathological as extreme selfishness. Finding a healthy and sustainable harmony between necessary selfishness and compassionate selflessness should be the ultimate goal of any spirituality or transformative therapy.

Timelessness

Just as ego death is a means of escaping the illusion of self, timelessness is a means of escaping the forward march of time. On psychedelics time may appear to slow or stop or even move backwards; or more often time is perceived as an illusion of relativity. This perception of timelessness is sometimes expressed as the realization that everything is happening simultaneously, from the beginning of time to the end of time, and that non-linear causality or reverse-temporal causality is non paradoxical.

Is timelessness therapeutic? Just as ego death can create an objective perspective of the self, escaping from the urgent progression of linear time allows the subject to view reality with a more detached cosmic or higher-dimensional perspective. This may be therapeutic if the subject is having anxiety about mortality and feels that time is running out. Timelessness allows the subject to accept the limitations of impermanence, and to take comfort in the realization that they are an integral part of the eternal time stream. Is timelessness spiritual? If the subject believes in the eternity of the soul then timelessness can be very spiritual. Timelessness creates the perception that the subject has always existed and will always exist in a perfect, idealized, eternal space. This can have extremely powerful spiritual implications. Can timelessness be harmful? There is danger in placing too much faith in fate, destiny, and non-linear causality. If the subject is resigned to believe that everything that happens is fated to be, then notions of freewill, motivation, and personal responsibility begin to erode. Also, losing temporal perspective for even a few moments can create memory holes or delusional patches where internal thoughts and external behaviors begin to diverge. The subject may internally experience periods of timelessness while their body is still interacting in linear time with the external world. While experiencing timelessness the subject may appear to be in trance or in a state of non-responsive sleepwalking. Some subjects fall into verbal or behavioral loops and repeat the same mantra over and over when they enter a timeless state. As long as the subject is in a safe environment then timelessness is relatively harmless; conversely it can become dangerous in uncontrolled environments.

Ineffability

A large part of the psychedelic experience involves sensations and experiences that we do not have proper words for. The production of ineffable mind states makes psychedelics both pharmacologically unique and difficult to describe to someone who has never taken them.

Is ineffability therapeutic? The answer is ambiguous. Ineffability may be comforting or conversely confounding. Either way there is no guarantee that having an ineffable experience is likely to do any good for a subject’s overall health or sense of well-being. Is ineffability spiritual? For some people the experience of visions and sensations beyond their vocabulary or understanding is inherently magical; for other people it is confusing and amounts to little more than strange noise. Nonetheless, the ineffable has become shorthand for any powerful psychedelic experience that cannot be described yet is implicitly transcendent. Calling something ineffable confers spiritual import, even though experience may not be fully understood. Can ineffability harmful? There is nothing more frustrating than having a profound life-changing experience that you cannot share with others. Attempting to describe an ineffable experience may make the subject sound crazy or like they are babbling nonsense. The inability to accurately describe a profound event can lead to feelings of self doubt, isolation, and despair. Anyone who seriously pursues psychedelic spirituality must be willing to deal with this ambiguity and expect that there will be profound insights that cannot be shared with others. Knowing that ineffability is part of the psychedelic experience may help minimize feelings of frustration in its wake.

Spirit Visions

Spirit visions are, by far, the most oft cited justification for psychedelic spirituality. Although I use the term visions, spirit visions need not be visual and may take the form of a disembodied voice, a channeled consciousness, a dream journey, or an actual anthropomorphic spirit that takes physical form. Spirit visions can be projected directly into the head or can appear in external space as ghost-like figures or concrete hallucinations. These spirit visions may be fleeting or they may take on a sweeping narrative quality like a heroic journey or quest for understanding with a cast of many distinct spirits.

Are spirit visions therapeutic? They can be. If the spirit visions confirm the subject’s beliefs and offer hope for the future they can be very therapeutic, but if the visions are ambiguous, frightening, or confusing they can compound pre-existing anxieties or create new anxieties. Closely analyzing the content of spirit visions is an essential component of any psychedelic therapy. Are spirit visions spiritual? Yes. The spirit vision is a central theme of all traditional forms of shamanism. A shaman is said to receive wisdom and healing power from the spirits, so it is necessary to promote spirit communion as the ultimate source of all shamanic power. Shamanic communion with a pantheon of helper spirits can be contrasted with the more Gnostic or Buddhist goal of unity and interconnectedness with a single all-pervasive consciousness. Traditional shamanism focuses on the former while Western entheogenic spiritualism focuses on the latter. Can spirit visions be harmful? Yes. Like a dream, there is no guarantee that information received in a spirit quest is actually valid or transferable to the real world. Faith in the ultimate truth of spirit visions can result in the subject manifesting occult beliefs and theologies that may be harmless but may become problematic. The most common non-beneficial side-effect of spirit visions is a lingering messianic complex, or the subject’s belief that he or she is the chosen beneficiary of prophecy which must be urgently delivered to the public.4 The most acute forms of this complex are clinically referred to as persistent recurring delusional psychosis and delusions of grandeur. Traditional shamen understand that the spirits are fickle and can use the subject’s own secret fears and wishes to play elaborate tricks; a more cynical reading of the literature may also conclude that many traditional shamen readily succumb to delusions of grandeur.5 Psychedelic spirituality should emphasize the role of spirits as assistants, helpers, and possible tricksters; not as religious commanders who must be obeyed. Spirit visions must be carefully parsed with a sober mind before being accepted as truth or prophecy.

Group Mind

Group mind is often mistakenly thought to be a form of mental telepathy, but group mind is simpler and subtler than telepathy implies. Instead of sending thoughts from one mind to another, group mind can be described as a set of people all sharing the same thoughts, actions, and/or emotional experience simultaneously. Group mind can arise in any mass ritual or celebration where many people are simultaneously engaged in the same activity; a choir singing in perfect harmony is a positive example of group mind, an angry mob engaged in a riot is a negative example of group mind. While psychedelics are not required to form a group mind state, they are particularly good at facilitating emotionally charged group mind experiences.

Is group mind therapeutic? It can be. Lowering personal barriers and becoming vulnerable enough to share raw emotions and immediate experience with others can be very supportive and rewarding. Performing positive actions as a group can create a strong sense of purpose, identity, and belonging. Is group mind spiritual? Yes. Almost all forms of organized religion use some kind of mass ritual to induce group mind for indoctrination, imprinting, and reinforcement of core congregational values. There need not be any spirits conjured or an explicit spiritual component for group mind to work, the feeling of bonding with others in a larger group is transcendent and spiritual in and of itself. Can group mind be harmful? Yes. Indoctrination and group imprinting is an ambiguous activity, the benefits derived depend on the congregational goals and beliefs. If these goals and beliefs are poorly defined, are negative, or seek to delude or confuse the subject, then group mind can be considered a form of brainwashing, mind control, peer pressure, or emotional manipulation. Group mind is most powerful in small tribal communities, and can be used to build emotional relationships as strong as familial bonds.

Catharsis

Catharsis is the external release of pent-up or repressed stress through emotional outburst. Catharsis can take joyful forms, like spontaneous dancing and singing, or it can take distraught forms, like crying and sobbing and emotional breakdown. In shamanic ceremonies catharsis may take the form of a literal purging of the stomach and bowels as the medicine casts out waste. Occasionally catharsis can take the form of violence or sexual aggression towards others.

Is catharsis therapeutic? Yes. Almost all schools of psychology stress the importance of releasing chronically repressed stress through emotional role play and epiphany. Purging through vomiting or diarrhea is a form of physical catharsis which cleanses the bowels and blood. While the experience of catharsis may not always be pleasant, there is usually a moment of epiphany where the subject feels purified and renewed, allowing them fresh perspective on their life and self-worth. Is catharsis spiritual? Yes. The release of repressed emotion is often accompanied by the feeling of a great weight being lifted from the subject. The lifting or release of a great burden is the literal definition of the term enlightenment, though Buddhist definitions may be more complex. The unraveling or unburdening of earthly suffering, desires, and anxieties is a central them of all transcendental mysticism. Can catharsis be harmful? Yes. In some cases the experience of catharsis can leave the subject depressed and ashamed, confused and disoriented, and can result in feelings of low self esteem. Catharsis can release violent emotions and sexually repressed desires. This is particularly true in subjects with post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) or subjects who have been repressing guilt about their behaviors or attitudes towards others. Catharsis can cut both ways, and when repressed emotions bubble over they are difficult to contain or take back. Caution is always required when probing the threshold of a cathartic event.

Rebirth

The experience of psychedelic rebirth is somewhat muddled by semantic terms. In rare cases the subject actually experiences their own birth, or something approximating a birth experience. In other cases the rebirth is the metaphorical term for returning from ego death, spirit journey, or catharsis, when the subject rises out of the ashes of psychic sublimation as purified; often with a new perspective or wisdom.

Is rebirth therapeutic? Usually. It is always comforting to return home after a long and arduous journey, but if the house is in disarray the homecoming can be anxiety inducing. In Freudian psychedelic therapy pioneered by Stan Grof, the literal rebirth experience is essential to understanding neurosis imprinted at a very early age.6 The metaphorical experience of psychedelic rebirth is almost universally described as a positive and rewarding. Is rebirth spiritual? Yes. Themes of death and rebirth can be found in all forms of mythology and religion. To be lifted from the body is the literal definition of ecstasy, and being reborn into the body as a purified soul is a central theme of many spiritual practices and beliefs. Can rebirth be harmful? Typically not, but there are rare instances where the subject does not want to be reborn and feels cheated or rebuked by having their spirit journey come to an end by being stuffed back into their body. This can lead to compulsively taking higher doses in attempts to leave the body for longer and longer periods of time, a goal which masquerades as spirituality but indicates pathology.

Invigoration

Accompanying the experience of catharsis and rebirth is a feeling of rejuvenation and invigoration. The body is purified, freshly wrung out and reborn, and sparks with new energy and new enthusiasm.

Is invigoration therapeutic? Yes. The psychedelic afterglow may be one of the least studied side-effects of psychedelic therapy. Some subjects report that it lasts a few days; others say it lingers for weeks. Is invigoration spiritual? Being invigorated is the same thing as being in good spirits, so there is definitely a spiritual component to the feeling of rejuvenation. Can invigoration be harmful? Yes. There are two possible side effects worth mentioning. The first is the possibility of an emotional crash, or bottoming out, which can come within days or weeks after the initial rush of psychedelic invigoration. It is not inevitable that all subjects will have a post-psychedelic emotional crash, but it is reported often enough to be worthy of scrutiny. The second side effect is mania, or runaway invigoration which leads the subject to compulsive behaviors and attempts to accomplish goals beyond their normal limits and abilities. Mania is a widely studied psychological state and is easily identified as such. Post psychedelic mania can last for days or weeks, can lead to delusions of grandeur, and is typically followed by an equally large depressive crash. Subjects who use psychedelics should always be ready for this emotional roller-coaster and be careful to closely monitor thoughts and behaviors following a psychedelic session to avoid the pitfalls of mania or emotional crashes.

Modern Psychedelic Spirituality

The tradition of seeking transcendence or spiritual communion through the ingestion of intoxicants is a topic that can fill many volumes and already has.7 From alcohol to mushrooms to tobacco to cough syrup to the venom of poisonous animals and a myriad of designer molecules fashioned in custom labs, all substances that can induce mystical experience have been used and abused extensively by humans since the dawn of history. Chemistry, medicine, and the modern practice of pharmacology all erupted at the turn of the 20th century when these forces converged into industrial markets capable of producing millions of doses of cheap designer intoxicants for consumer use. When the consumer market became saturated with novel psychoactive substances the governments of the world began prohibiting their sale and distribution. This prohibition is known as the modern War on Drugs.8

While most cultures in the world have at least some history of mystical intoxicants, the concept of communing with a single unitary force is primarily a Hindu or Buddhist tradition; the concept of communing with a single monotheistic God is primarily a Jewish, Muslim, or Christian tradition; and the concept of channeling helper spirits, plant spirits, animal spirits, or ancestors to gain extrasensory vision is primarily an animist tradition. Over the centuries these distinct cultural expectations of spiritual experience have blended into syncretic practices like Gnosticism, Voodoo, Wicca, Pantheism, Occultism, New Age, and so on, taking bits and pieces from older spiritual practices and repackaging them as something new. Shamanism is the blanket term for traditional psychedelic plant spiritualism among indigenous tribes, although Vegetalismo has been offered as a more distinctive alternative.9 Modern psychedelic spirituality is an offshoot of the late 20th century hippie and New Age movement, and is defined in terms of entheogens and entheogenic experience, or the awakening of the spirit within. Although modern entheogenic practice may incorporate some shamanic tropes, in most ways it is quite distinct from traditional shamanism.

In traditional shamanic cultures psychedelics are employed to seek spirit power in order to heal or work magic, not to find communion with God. The use of psychedelics for transcendence and communion is a modern Western phenomenon which can be traced back to Gnostic mysticism during the rise of early Monotheism.10 In traditional shamanism psychedelics are used to heal the sick and possibly wage magic battles with other sorcerers. In modern Gnostic practice psychedelics are used for more self-serving purposes, primarily the first-person experience of transcendence or Holy Communion. The modern entheogenic model of psychedelic spirituality did not enter Western mainstream culture until R. Gordon Wasson reported on the ancient religious wonders of the magic mushroom in Life Magazine in 1957,11 which was only three years after Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception, detailing his mystical experiences with mescaline.12 These texts sparked the spiritual imagination of what would become the hippie generation of the 1960s. According to reports from Maria Sabina, the healer who first shared the sacred mushroom with Wasson, the resulting flood of spiritual seekers coming to Mexico to find God diluted the power of the mushrooms and made her own healing prowess deteriorate.13,14 The use of psychedelics for shamanic healing and sorcery and the use of psychedelics for spiritual transcendence are two distinct behaviors which are not always compatible and are often at odds with each other.

Spirits and Spirit Worlds

Figure 2 : A psychedelic painting by Pablo Amaringo of a young woman drinking ayahuasca and seeing the brightly colored spirit world infused over reality.

Traditional shamanic mythology is animist, implying that animal, plant, and ancestral spirits exist in this world alongside the living, not in an idealized dimension beyond our grasp. To a traditional shaman the psychedelic medicine merely opens the eyes to see what is always present, and through this opening new wisdom is revealed (Fig. 2). The modern notion of journeying to a spirit realm to commune with disembodied entities is a mix of aboriginal archetypes of dreaming and spirit walking, Western archetypes of visiting afterlives of heaven and hell, and Tibetan archetypes of traveling through bardos of the afterlife. The ontological split between the land of the living and dead is not always recognized in traditional shamanism, though it has been readily adopted by modern syncretic churches which blend traditional peyote and ayahuasca shamanism with themes and iconography borrowed from Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Catholicism. The central questions still remain: Are psychedelic spirits of this world or of an ontologically distinct spirit world; are they from a Christian universe or a Hindu universe or a Pagan universe; are they shared fabrications of human consciousness; are they all of the above; or does it even matter?

This fluid nature of psychedelic mythology and the conflicting cultural notions of spirit worlds and transcendence indicates that psychedelic spirituality is malleable and can be adapted to meet existing cultural beliefs. That is to say, there is no one true psychedelic spirituality or spirit world. Animist shamanism is just as valid as entheogenic transcendence; ecstatic celebrations are just as valid as healing rituals and sorcery. At the crux of this debate is the notion of who derives the spiritual benefit from psychedelics and why. Are psychedelics merely for healing the sick, or are they also for black magicians and people with a mild spiritual curiosity? If we use psychedelics for recreational or selfish purposes do we dilute their healing power, and how do the evil deeds of shamanic sorcery mesh with hippie entheogenic ideals of unity, peace, and love? In truth it is impossible to reconcile all these conflicting notions of psychedelic spirituality, and thus viewing psychedelics solely as sacraments is at best a stretch and at worst an error of Western ethnocentrism. Psychedelics are not sacraments; they are tools for accessing a wide range of human abilities, some of which happen to be overtly spiritual. Psychedelics are not of the spirit world, they are not spiritual in origin, nor are they necessarily spiritual for everyone who takes them. Thus, any religion or mythology that claims to know the true purpose or source of psychedelic spiritual power is obscuring a larger fact; psychedelics do not deliver ultimate spiritual truth, they amplify and reinforce whatever spiritual ontology we already choose to believe.



Notes and References

[1] Doblin, R, 'Pahnke's 'Good Friday Experiment' A Long-Term Follow-Up And Methodological Critique'. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1991, Vol. 23, No. 1.

[2] Griffiths, R.R., 'Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance'. Psychopharmacology (2006) 187:268283

[3] Strassman, Rick, 'DMT: The Spirit Molecule'. Park Street Press, Vermont. 2001.

[4] Many modern psychedelic gurus have been driven by a messianic complex; some more passionately than others. Messianic tendencies are not always pathological, but there are some good indicators to look for. Messianic complex may be considered pathology if the message advocated by the guru is spiritual in nature; is revealed only to him or her by divine selection; is of urgent or pressing importance; and defies rationality or invokes occult systems in place of scientific evidence. Being passionate about psychedelics or psychedelic advocacy is not necessarily messianic; claiming psychedelic wisdom has anointed you to save the world is the definition of messianic.

[5] See "Shamanic Sorcery"

[6] Grof, S, 'LSD Psychotherapy'. MAPS, 3rd Edition, 2001.

[7] Erowid.org, 'Erowid Library/Bookstore'. Online reference of hundreds of books on psychoactive substances.

[8] Russell D, 'Drug War: Covert Money, Power & Policy'. Dan Russell, 1999-2000.

[9] Tindall R, 'The Jaguar That Roams the Mind'. Park Street Press, Vermont, 2008.

[10] Ruck C, Hofmann A, Wasson GR, et al., 'The Road To Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries'. William Dailey Antiquarian Books, 2004.

[11] Wasson RG, 'Seeking the Magic Mushroom'. Life Magazine, May 13, 1957, p100.

[12] Huxley A, 'The Doors of Perception'. Harper and Row, 1954

[13] Beyer, SV, 'Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon'. University of New Mexico Press (October 31, 2009)

[14] Letcher A, 'Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom'. Faber, Great Britain, 2006.

[15] Griffiths RR, Richards WA, et al., 'Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later'. Journal of Psychopharmacology, Vol. 22, No. 6, 621-632 (2008)

Citation: Kent, James L. Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason, Appendix, 'Why are Psychedelics Spiritual?'. PIT Press, Seattle, 2010.

Keywords: psychedelics, shamanism, entheogens, spirituality, mysticism

Copyright: © James L. Kent, 2010. Some Rights Reserved. Please read copyright information before reproducing.

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