“To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness—to be aware of it and yet remain in a condition to survive as an animal. Our goal is to discover that we have always been where we ought to be. Unhappily we make the task exceedingly difficult for ourselves.”
― Aldous Huxley (1954), The Doors of Perception
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2020. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
What Comes First?
Before moving into the practical territory of preparing for the use of a mind-expanding substance it would be worthwhile to consider what these substances do. I believe that they do just about anything. As a result, the idea that there is some “thing” to prepare for, and that this thing might be judged to be good or bad, is a chimera.
Some descriptions delve into the chemistry of neurotransmitters and neural imaging (Vollenweider, 2001), the classes of chemicals and their psychological effects (Calvey, 2018), the transcendental nature of the experience (Huxley, 1954; Strassman, 2001; McKenna, 1994; Goldsmith, 2011), the anthropology of the ritual uses of these substances (Rätsch, 2005), and the localized mechanical responses of our brain and body structures (Carhart-Harris, 2014).
As interesting and suggestive as these approaches are, I have not found them to differentiate between the psychological, spiritual, and therapeutic. Different people have different experiences using the same substances because people are configured differently. These chemicals dis-integrate one’s personality. Aside from some substances being more effective than others for certain people, the result of this disintegration depends more on the personality and less on the substance.
Experiences differ greatly and people have different reactions to these experiences. Preparing for a dis-integrating experience has more to do with organizing one’s mind than it does with selecting one’s chemical or presuming the organ, chakra, or nerve center it will act on.
Subjective reports mostly tell us what’s been seen, like the narrative of a dream. We hear less about how these experiences provide a new understanding of the universe. That is, insights into spirit, matter, and communication with nature. These two different approaches—the narrative and the illuminated—cleave the line between the perceptual and the conceptual, the tangible and the incarnate. And as fascinating as the wildly different perceptions may be, it’s only what we learn about what we didn’t already know that has any real importance.
The Old Dichotomy
Simplifying the world into two modes of thought works here: there are those cultures who believe communion with the divine occurs through heart, mind, and spirit—which I’ll call the conceptual approach—and those who believe communion lies in the experience of the world—call this approach physical. This reflects the duality in Western thought between rationalism and empiricism, and in science between theory and experiment, and in religion between mediated and direct experience.
The neurotransmitter, psychological, anthropological, and mechanical are largely Western approaches; they are conceptual and analytical. As interesting and different as each of these are, I lump them all into “the Analytical Approach”. They are all rational.
Carl Jung applied the term “numinosum” to distinguish the rational self’s discussion of the holy from our direct experience of it, our transcendent experience. His point, as I’m making here, is that the self struggles at all costs to remain separate from its experience lest it lose its identity. All rationalist approaches are ego-based.
To better understand the word numinosum, recognize that the term “phenomena” derives from the Greek words “bring to light” and “to appear,” while “numina” comes from Latin meaning “divine will.” The numinosum, as Jung used it, relates less to religion than it does to the essential meaning behind what we see. The numinous experience, then, is the experience of what exists beyond appearances. The value of the psychedelic experience lies in the opportunity to experience a reality that is not mediated by the self.
“But, while it is memorable, the numinous is not easily put into words. ‘Ineffable’ is another of its features. The numinous “eludes apprehension in terms of concepts.” Being bigger and beyond oneself, it induces speechlessness. Being a mystery, it bewilders the rational mind. Being divine, it links us to the ‘ground of the soul.’ Being ‘unevolvable,’ it is not to be derived from any other feeling.”
— Sue Mehrtens, Jungian Center for the Spiritual Sciences (2010)
The nature spirit approach is mythological, non-rational, and rooted in cultures that do not write, analyze, or discuss their cosmology. These are the traditional cosmologies of indigenous cultures throughout the world that often include mind-expanding rituals, with or without mind altering substances. Through whatever means, these cultures believe that each person must experience the numinosum, and that it cannot be taught and, to a large degree, cannot be talked about.
Examples of the mythological experience include Asclepian dream therapy, the aboriginal walkabout, religious retreats, sensory deprivation, and extreme physical exertion—none of which involve psychedelics—and the Greek’s Elucinean Mystery School—which did. The effect of these experiences depend on your state of mind and your setting. In contrast, the rationalist approach presumes to be objective, which means it can be understood independent from your set and setting. In fact, the rationalist approach presumes that understanding does not depend on any experience, at all.
A larger part of the attraction of the mind-expansion movement, if it can be called that, is to break out of this conceptual approach. The mind-expansion movement says, in effect, that experience is more fundamental than theory, but our modern culture claims otherwise.
The mythological experience is like the psychedelic experience: the set and setting determine the nature of the experience. Our general, social attitudes cleave along these lines as well: those who insist on the identity of the self, law, control, and reason eschew or—more often—demonize psychedelics. Those interested in exploring beyond or escaping the limits of self, law, control, and reason embrace psychedelics.
Horizontal Views: Rational, Practical, Mythical
Can you see your world from both the perspectives of what can be described and what cannot be? To what extent have you engaged these two different perspectives to understand the workings of the world? If you don’t believe in this duality, then how do you account for these two different realms of experience, how do you come to understand what you don’t know?
These are loaded questions. The modern prejudice is that the mythological perspective, which we can equate with the psychedelic perspective if only for the sake of argument, offers no insight. But it must be noted that while the conceptual approach to understanding the world guarantees insight—which is not to say that it’s correct but that it claims to be—the mythological perspective offers no guarantee. The conceptual approach allows you to judge the new on the basis of the known. The mythological approach introduces you to novelty that lies outside your basis of judgment.
Abandon wrong and right if you want to understand the potential benefits of psychedelics. They can be beneficial or detrimental. We are now hearing of their positive life-changing potential but, in most cases, their effects are not life-changing. But that, too, invites a judgment that’s premature because personality is an evolving structure that develops in response to repeated experience.
Vertical Views: Conscious, Subconscious, Ancestral
From listening to other people’s experiences, I observe that psychedelics can reveal to a person hidden aspects of their personality. People often confuse these with hidden aspects of reality, which is a typical mistake as few appreciate that one’s reality is always personal. Even if the psychedelic could precipitate your telepathic powers, this would still qualify as a hidden aspect of your personality.
The reality that can emerge is a new construction built on patterns stored in your mind and body. These consist of forgotten memories, unintegrated experiences, and ideas and feelings that are not safe to consider. These obstacles could be opportunities for growth and healing. They are destabilizing forces that might alter your personality and how you affect other people’s lives.
As outside observers, we cannot distinguish those hidden aspects of another’s personality that need to be revealed from those aspects that are best left hidden. The distinction between positive and negative material depends on what precipitates growth or injury.
The ambiguity between the positive and the negative is embodied in the notion of spiritual emergence, otherwise called “spiritual emergency.” From a Western psychological perspective, spiritual emergence is a destabilizing, psychotic episode to be resolved with the administration of antipsychotic medication, followed by counseling to reestablish the normal. The psychologist’s goal is to return a person to their pre-emergent state.
Western medicine sees the individual as a solitary entity. Health is defined as what enables a person. Western medicine cannot fathom the proposition that death might be a healing, or that illness might be a process of emergence. Both of these concepts can be revealed through a transcendent experience.
An extended notion of who is growing or healing is a central and as-yet unrecognized aspect of the psychedelic experience. Indigenous traditions respect ancestry and tradition as a living legacy. These traditions do not see the past as preparation for progress, but rather a cycle of creation and destruction.
Western culture is oblivious to ancestry beyond genetics or tradition beyond its effect on evolution. Since both genetics and evolution are emerging fields in Western thought, they don’t fully explain, appreciate, or understand the potential of psychedelics in this regard.
Genetics, Right and Wrong
For a time, inherited genetics played the solitary role of carrying species traits forward. It was thought that traits were inherited, change was random, and evolution generated improvements. In this model—which still permeates Western culture—individuals are autonomous, imbued with their future potential from birth, and authorized by one prerogative or another to be fruitful and multiply.
With the advent of epigenetics and psychoneuroimmunology—which are still nascent fields—we’re starting to recognize that the genetics of our personalities are formed from the combined memories and experiences of our immediate ancestors and change with each generation. More than that, our genetics change with our experiences, so that what’s growing and healing is not just the identity we’ve wrought during our lives, but an identity we’ve collected from our ancestors, and which we pass on to our descendants.
This broader perspective makes it difficult to judge psychological progress because it’s unclear who we are to start with, what we’re working to overcome, and who we have the potential to grow into. We really have no idea of what memories are or where traumas are stored. The potential for psychedelics to unlock memories and resolve traumas could, and probably does, span generations.
In the Western model, good from bad is determined by what’s good for society, for which the state is the usual proxy. If your constitution makes you unsuited for work, social discourse, or compulsory education then you are deemed to be in need of repair, and the dysfunction is yours. Whatever restores you to work, society, or education is considered salutary. The notion of healing is not really part of the Western mental health model. The word is used mostly to prevent other modalities from co-opting it. The true meaning of healing is deeper than anything that Western medicine has on the menu.
Growth and Healing
In the spiritual model, “healing” is something that brings you closer to an integral and divinely-connected self. The spiritual model comes in many forms and from many traditions both indigenous and syncretic, that is to say both authentically pre-Western and as constructions that combine modern and ancient notions of mental health. Every indigenous culture has a spiritual model of healing, and syncretic models include the Brazilian Spiritist, Chinese Medicine, Christian Science, and many others.
The Western mental health model fits psychedelics poorly. The current enthusiasm for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is unconvincing from a spiritual point of view. Syncretic approaches have a poor track record, which is not to impugn them all, but their lack of being responsible for their results leaves them unable to improve themselves. This need not be the case, but this situation develops when the health of the institution is more important than its effect on individuals.
Most Westerners are loath to accept the nature spirit approach which, truth be told, is usually a last resort. It’s more or less desperate people who look to ketamine for depression, iboga for addiction, or ayahuasca for enlightenment. They have tried everything else, first, and have not found what they’re looking for.
You might ascribe this to these substances being illegal, but I think it’s more due more to the substances’ high risk, lack of endorsement, and the absence of any guarantee. It should be noted, lest the fact escape us, that almost anything that can be achieved through psychedelics can also be achieved without them, if you learn how to do it.
Authority For Sale
There is an odd, humorous, and sometimes tragic misunderstanding about the nature spirit approach for those with a Western mind-set. Westerners, who are steeped in central government, believe in the benevolence of authority and our need for guidance. Because of this, we either find, enlist, or invent a guide for our purposes.
The elders of indigenous cultures have no desire to provide spiritual guidance to Westerners. The shamans who accept the role—coyotes who are not seen as wise men in their own cultures—make a mockery of it. Of the many shamans that I have known, the good ones are jokers.
Lacking a suitable leader, Western audiences have turned to the chemicals themselves, claiming that the chemicals will guide us. When the people of the Amazon say that “the plant will teach you,” Westerners think they’re going to school. They don’t have a clue. People will to do anything, it seems, to escape responsibility for their own actions.
So it happens that yoga instructors are selling mind-expansion, shamans are revered as healers, movie stars are considered authorities, and psychologists are seen as experts. This role is outside these people’s training and experience. They should know better than to accept these roles, but consumers will pay inordinate amounts to protect themselves from the obligation of healing themselves through direct experience.
Those who accept these roles are recognized and, through recognition, affirmed. Those who don’t, are seen as admitting their lack of qualification, rather than being wise people who refute the premise. People who have no basis for verification will accept the claim of anyone they recognize as being an authority. I see inexperienced psychologists charging $1,500 to “train” other psychologists in the use of psychedelics. What the rich will do, others will follow.
What They Can Do
Psychedelics can reframe your concept of reality. They can do this to a greater or lesser extent. They can challenge or disable you, or they can do nothing at all. Their potential is largely determined by what you allow yourself to experience, and what novelty you can manage to build into your understanding of the world.
There are two steps to any expanded mind: the discovery and the understanding. Psychedelics can help you with the discovery, but not all discoveries are useful. They may help you with the understanding, but I suspect that depends more on what you’re ready for, and less with what you discover. I have seen to infinity and maybe you will, too, but I’m not sure what this vision does.
In a more abstract sense, these are the same two steps necessary for healing: finding a new power, sensation, or perception, and incorporating this into your being. You may say that you don’t need any new power, sense, or perception, but the point to remember is that you cannot judge what you don’t yet know. In order to judge what you don’t know you must first experience it to some degree. Then, your judgment will be a guess that extrapolates from what you know to what you don’t.
That’s how me make all our judgments, and psychedelics are no exception, they just have the potential to expose us to things more strange and powerful than our everyday opportunities. And the best way to make judgments of this kind is to position yourself as close as possible to the frontier of your experience, educate yourself about the view beyond, and add in the appropriate amount of curiosity and caution.
Psychedelics are the parachute jump master that shouts you out the airplane’s door to the open sky. It’s your job to have your parachute packed and to take it from there. What they can do, then, is to show you a larger and older world. This can be a rite of passage or a waste of time.
“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”
― Aldous Huxley
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