The Revolutionary Potential of Psychedelics

Psychedelic Roses by DancesSoSexy on DeviantArt  -  CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Psychedelic Roses by DancesSoSexy on DeviantArt – CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Psychedelic substances are resurging into the popular culture in ways unrivaled since the starry-eyed, long-haired baby boomers of the 1960’s dropped acid and discovered peace and promiscuity. However, today’s generation of visionary psychonauts are making a much more measured movement to the mainstream than the hundred thousand hippies who descended on San Francisco in 1967’s summer of love. While they were encouraged to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” by revolutionary ex-Harvard scientist turned LSD evangelist Timothy Leary, modern proponents such as philosopho-comedian Joe Rogan and alternative archeology researcher Graham Hancock feel quite a bit more level headed, and dare I say credible, in their advocation of these consciousness bending chemicals.

Hints of revolution seem almost part and parcel with the transformative potential psychedelics undoubtedly yield, yet today these hints seem slightly less radical, and far more deeply connected to a realization of individual emotional growth, as well as social and personal maturity. Before being cast as deadly outlaws and lumped in with speed and heroin by Richard Nixon’s cocksure ‘war on drugs’, psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms were making waves as powerful new tools in the psychological community’s toolbox.

Today’s arsenal of dubiously effective, chronically administered, and arguably soul-crushing amphetamines and serotonin manipulating zombification pills are given to adults and children alike for everything from sadness to boredom. In contrast, these psyche-hacking shamanic medicines can often produce positive and lasting changes in just a few doses. A small, yet strong and growing body of research, as well as a poignant parade of personal anecdotes, are continuously demonstrating their therapeutic benefit for such tough nuts to crack as post traumatic stress disorder, anti-social tendencies, addiction, and fear of death. All of this as the fire and brimstone predictions peddled by the DEA and classroom DARE programs prove themselves decidedly overblown. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (or MAPS), is a non-profit organization that is leading the charge in a new wave of studies, picking up from and offering validation to the work of those fringe 1960’s researchers who saw the potential boon psychedelics could yield in our creative, spiritual, and interpersonal lives.

Psychedelics, like intense meditation or spiritual practices, can hyper-subjectify reality, meaning that they intensify experience in a way that potentiates a myriad of information streams that are not necessarily dependent on any kind of sensory input. The results are always exceedingly unique, but it is the similarities I find most interesting. The kinds of effects that are useful in a therapists office include increased emotional clarity, openness to new perspectives, and ruthless self-examination. Telepathic or other paranormal experiences, as well as reported contacts with beings, extra-terrestrial or extra-dimensional, demon or deity, are also common, especially at higher doses. As are unitive, ego-shredding, or samādhi-like experiences, in which the apparent separation between subject and object dissolves, and one feels their sense of self expanded to contain the cosmos.

The kinds of truths discerned during these experiences are rarely empirically verifiable, yet are often deeply impactful and can’t be easily separated from the observed clinical effects. Often those transformations are intricately tied to understandings reached during these more mystical moments. An argument exists, and may not be easily solved, between whether the many compelling structural similarities give us a more fundamental insight into the nature of such mystical experiences than the seemingly endless amounts of detailed variation. Are they are a kind of metaphorical imagineering of the self, externalized and projected outward, or do they point to a more foundational ontological reality?

My own relatively mild-mannered journeys into psychedelic space have certainly provided me with valuable personal insight into some of my more problematic emotional and belief patterns, and have in many ways left me humbled. Perhaps above all else, I am recovering from the deathly ego trap of believing that in more than one area, we humans had pinned reality down, had forced it to tap out and yield us knowledge of ‘the truth’. I also felt that people who did not see and accept that were, by definition, irrational. The extraordinary nature of my trips has forced me to question some basic assumptions about what it is that I, or we, can know. Objectivity, that holy ideal, seems now merely an attractive mirage, that when grasped at has actually left me stumbling and clutching air as it reappeares across the room.

Let me be clear, this is not an endorsement of the flighty choose-your-own-reality philosophical anti-framework of the extremist new age relativists. It is a recognition of the inherent limitations we face as observers, forever trapped by the nature of experience itself behind an impenetrable barrier of subjectivity. It is a denouncement of the not-objective-therefore-hallucination reductionism ad-absurdum of the materialist minded demagogues. It is an attempt to strike that balance between being open minded and sufficiently cautious to which both the skeptical mafia and the woo-peddling charlatans pay lip service while each performing the gymnastic double back flip of authoritative appeals to the consensus of scientists or the wisdom of gurus. What stands between these two extremes is a little hard, at first, to suss out.

Tim Leary thought we could use psychedelics to level-up our consciousness and ‘tune in’ to important galactic information, and that our future held a rather transhumanist S.M.I2.L.E. (Space Migration / Increased Intelligence / Life Extension). Terrence Mckenna thought psilocybin had helped him decipher the I-CHING, and develop a theory of novelty which predicted that Dec 21, 2012 would “be the entry of our species into hyperspace. It will appear to be the end of physical laws, accompanied by the release of the mind into the imagination.” Ketamine drenched psychedelic explorer John Lilly, when he wasn’t attempting to communicate with dolphins, warned us about a borg-like, solid state, extra-terrestrial intelligence that was attempting to absorb all organic life.

While we shouldn’t quickly dismiss their pioneering contributions to exploring and reporting on both the ecstatic and terrifying nature of visionary space, clearly, these beliefs should give us pause before we drink the Kool-Aid of revelatory psychedelic truth. Oddness abound, it seems a dangerous mistake to elevate such subjective conjurings to the level of ‘the truth’. Perhaps they can best be interpreted in terms of something like Jeff Kripal’s narrative centered take on paranormal experiences. “They have everything to do with story and plot and symbol and sign. I think a lot of people’s paranormal experiences are powerful, precisely to the extent they’re about story and meaning and have really very little to do with material, causal processes.”

Kripal’s view does not deny the reality of these experiences, but it questions the value of the laser-like, often desperate focus on cornering truth that seems to dominate the discourse at the expense of meaning and context. Lived experience is a powerful generator of beliefs, and will likely continue to be, despite the best attempts of rationalists to convince us to ‘believe as we say, not as you see.’

Even if it were possible to objectively observe without subjectively interpreting, politics and intellectual popularity contests often play as large a part in expert consensus as any fact could hope to. The scientific enterprise should, and has, convinced us that the earth is round, or that moving magnets can produce electricity, but the authority of these near-certainties is often evoked for less empirically knowable claims like ‘brains create minds’, or ‘there is no life after death’. Knowing what makes this difference is crucial, as ambiguity, chaos, and complexity obscure objectivity – often irreparably.

Cosmic Eye finalby itokashi

Cosmic Eye by itokashi on DeviantArt —  CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

At the very least, whether an unconventional splash in the neurochemical soup coaxes the brain into producing these phenomena, or quiets the brain, and connects us to whatever the hell does, psychedelics instruct us on the arbitrary nature of consensus reality. A slight tweak in what constitutes our day-to-day brain chemistry, and colorful visionary patterns and interpersonal dissolution would be normality, while the idea that we are all separate individuals, apart from wholeness and love, would be the hallucinogenic trip. This inter-dimensional birds eye view should give us pause before deciding consensus reality represents how things actually are.

Though I would never dare to suggest designed intention, there is something both tragic and poetic in imagining that the ultimate nature of reality lies beyond the grasp of empiricism. What better mystery than the one that never gets solved, no matter how much closer each discovery makes it seem? What better generator of awe? What better generator of humbling elevation to those fools arrogant enough to claim that they ‘know’?

Psychedelics stoke these mysteries, and yield just the right amount of destructive potential, breaking down static, outdated frameworks and clearing space for the flourishing of something new and meaningful. Embracing this process requires openness, intelligence, reverence, and perhaps most of all, what Erik Davis called “that most telepathic of human emotions”: empathy.

19 thoughts on “The Revolutionary Potential of Psychedelics

  1. During the 60’s and 70’s I had a couple of dozen psychedelic drug induced experiences, primarily LSD. I then stopped doing them. They can open doors but they can’t make someone walk through them and change their lives and consciousness. It is not about ingesting the substances, it’s what you do with the possibilities. Otherwise they can just become an intense way to avoid personal and cosmic responsibility rather than embrace change, and work to benefit your Self and others.

  2. Dale says

    I would think that the empirically proven double slit experiment would wake-up the scientific community to the truth that observation can cause results of so called hard science. What is our consciousness other than an electrochemical piece of observation equipment? So our observation of the world and universe has effect on particles. To what extent? I haven’t read enough to see where this knowledge and research is going. Though it’s an experiment that’s somewhat dated, it is still extremely exciting stuff. We wouldn’t have the CERN if it weren’t. This ties directly in with consciousness I feel, and much much more research needs to be done as there are way too many untested researched niche’s in this field.

      • Doop says

        It may be true, I don’t know, but I’m sure that it’s not at all a fair representation of his views and his work. I’ve read a couple books by him (Metaprogramming and Center of the Cyclone) and I don’t recall anything about Ketamine. He did describe one trip where he felt like he was a part of a huge machine that might be something like the Borg, but this is not indicative of his wider philosophy. He abandoned his dolphin research, I think because he had ethical issues with it and wanted to focus more on psychedelics. He was very much in favor of using psychedelics as a psychotherapeutic aid and to achieve more positive states of consciousness, long-term. You should try reading some of his books, they’re pretty good.

        • aaron says

          I definitely will read some of his work.. it’s on my list! I do know that ketamine was his drug of choice, especially in his later years, hence the ‘ketamine drenched’ descriptor. I had also heard about his machine-like universe trip, but I never read anything about him presenting that as reality, whereas I did read that he literally came to believe in the truth of this solid-state, borg-like intelligence.

          That paragraph didn’t really present a balanced view of Leary, Mckenna, or Lilly’s work. It wasn’t meant to. It was meant to point out some of the more wacky ideas they had and the danger of just accepting ontological truths from visionary drug states. I could definitely have taken more care to express that each of them has a much wider and more valuable contribution than just those out there beliefs.

          • Doop says

            Yeah but Tim Leary really did push a lot of agendas and ideas very similar to the ones you mentioned, over a long period of time. McKenna wrote at least 2 books about the I Ching and Timewave Zero. I would be interested to see primary sources where Lilly promoted his Borg ideas.

            There’s no shortage of examples of the dangers of accepting psychedelic ontological truth at face value. Daniel Pinchbeck and Martin Ball come to mind. My opinion is that it’s more effective to use actual wackos to demonstrate that point.

            Psychedelics are going to present all kinds of crazy ideas to you as truth, there’s really no way around that. Staying sane afterwards requires that you examine them as objectively as possible and revise your ideas accordingly, and also that you take your own beliefs with a large grain of salt.

            I think people like John Lilly and Robert Anton Wilson are better presented as examples of how to successfully negotiate some of the more standard psychedelic pitfalls such as paranoia, conspiracy, and megalomania.

            Although, I realize that the names I’ve given might not tend to support the narrative in your first couple of paragraphs.

          • Doop says

            Oh I should also throw Aldous Huxley into my 4th paragraph. I’m not sure that I can make Alan Watts fit, though.

          • Doop says

            Honestly, I think that examples of wackos and of broader intellects can be found in any decade. I think they were around at the advent of the psychedelic revolution, and I think they’re still around. I think that a disproportionate amount of attention has been given to the crazy ideas of some of the original icons, probably because it was so new at the time, and also probably because they were involved in the popularization of the drugs. I think that a lot of the saner voices at that time were much quieter, probably because they specifically did NOT want to popularize the drugs. And I think that a lot of the more modern wackos are paid less attention, partly because there are more of them, and partly because it’s nothing new anymore, one can always point to Leary or McKenna and say that it’s been done.

            I don’t know that I see much progress in the general level of circumspection with regard to psychedelic truth. In fact, the new age religion is full blown in California and Colorado, and the popularity of the drugs and the culture means that it’s easier to find people that believe the same crap you do and live in an echo chamber. If anything, my perspective is that the general trend is toward more jadedness, and toward more recreational use and less reverent use. I don’t know the actual statistics but I would be willing to bet that ecstasy and cocaine are much more prevalent, relative to LSD and mushrooms, that they used to be, inside the psychedelic scene.

            This is of course up for debate.

  3. freeman says

    the Cosmic Eye is and always will be the eye of Horus the research and find out why the new world order is using it to worship false gods ( Satan )….don’t judge what i wrote until you do the research..i know you will be shocked as you unravel the truth that has been hidden from people for years…no need to reply to my post…as an open minded person it should be easy to see…those of us that are enlightened …we can see the truths as others can’t….take the time…only with truth can keep us as free as we always wanted to be

  4. BACBikes says

    If we are generated “consciounesses” via electrochemical means, along a reiterative path (birth and reproduction), and these chemicals have an ability to change how we relate to the chemical and physical nature of ‘reality’, by changing our perception of it – then, shouldn’t we try all possible means to dig ourselves out of the societal ruts that we have buried ourselves in, or should we just stick with what’s safe, and what we ‘know’? The ones that make, promote and sponsor the laws against psychedelics (and even other relaxants) do so out of fear: fear that their carefully-constructed personalities will be revealed for what they are – nothing – and that these personalities and the roles that they inhabit (breifly) only have a societally agreed-to power, and not an innate one. An ‘Animal Farm’-like con-job. Fear of powerlessness is the most enduring and pernicious fear, followed by fear of the unknown. Those that attempt to deny and mask this in themselves have a psychological need to subject others to it, and to deny them power over their own lives and perceptions. however, we are all free to say: “I reject your reality, and substitute it with my own” – as Adam Savage from ‘Mythbusters’ has on his T-Shirt. Whether you need magic mushies to do this is somewhat moot.

    Repressive laws are not kind, no matter how much ‘lawn order for the greater good’ is invoked. If all drugs were legal, their dangers known, their suppliers clean, the supply chains transparent, there’s be no more “Breaking Bad”, no more drug lord/DEA rule by fear of death or imprisonment. Two sides of the same coin – of a bad currency.

    Bill Hicks’ “evolved beings exploring the outer reaches of the universe” would be so much more achievable, with so much less death, pain, boredom and destruction.

    • It is about fear and about power. If a person “needs” to ingest drugs in order to “relax” she is not truly free. If a person “wants” to ingest drugs I suggest that the person is also not truly free. The promise of realizing the promise of the true psychedelic experience is learning that we all have the power inside our Self to be free. It is a pathway to the Open Door, it is not the solution. You are the solution. Legalization of drugs supports those who are against persons becoming truly free. It facilitates obesiance to the powers that control politics, economics, and social mores which enforce psychic slavery. It is not a true tool of freedom in our society. Being truly free means that we do not use drugs. Drugs know no master other than themselves. Dare to be truly free and allow your inner self to grow and freely express itself as LSD and other psychedelics are yearning to teach.

      • BACBikes says

        I don’t think you read what I wrote. You are confusing what I didn’t say about the “necessity” and desirability of using drugs, psychedelics (which are a drug, as are THC and alcohol) with the “possibility” that they may help produce different, less damaging ways of looking at and relating to the world. Different people have different metabolisms which react to different drugs in different ways. I said that a possibility that they create altered views and relations to the world exists. Psychedelics are not more or less special than any other consciousness altering chemical. Ingesters of the same are not more or less special than any other drug user. You say the same thing, then you don’t, then you do again.
        Even when you’re talking about expanded consciousness, its a good idea to use logical sequences of argument.

          • Veloaficionado says

            Who said anything about “relying on drugs to control your feelings”? I said that they exist, and people use them, and attempting to control, demonise and criminalise them is just another way of limiting people’s choices on how they are able to perceive the world, as also is a dependence on them to regulate your relationships with the world. Most drugs have side effects, and uninteneded consequences in use, production and distribution – grave ones, with police against traffickers ruining entire regions. Why control and limit this access? A free society does not make choices for adult members – it educates adult members as to the dangers, and attempts to make society a safe place to be, by not encouraging weapons, hatred, fear and control.

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