Is Taking Psychedelics an Act of Sedition?
The disturbances of Sept. 11 have sent us reeling, driving many to seek relief from anxiety and depression through socially sanctioned psychotropics such as Prozac, Xanax, and alcohol. But some of the so-called psychedelic drugs (cannabis, LSD, peyote, psilocybin, ayahuasca, and MDMA or Ecstasy), targets of America's deeply misguided war on drugs, could have a more profound and healthful effect, if used responsibly.
The very idea of going off on a psychedelic "head trip" in this hour of national crisis might be seen as self-indulgent folly, or worse, an act of cerebral sedition. Yet a cold and sober look through the smoldering smoke of Ground Zero leads me to believe that, depending on individual circumstances, of course, there are now even more compelling reasons to sanction the practice of judicious psychedelic use.
If combat readiness is an issue, if your function is to evacuate a building in a hurry, screen airline passengers, detect the presence of microscopic pathogens, analyze forensic evidence that could lead to the apprehension of culpable or would-be terrorists, or execute a commando raid on an Afghan mountain, this is probably not the season for psychedelics.
But if you're not sure who the real enemy is, if you're inclined to ask more questions about the nature of the reality that's just swung out into a broad new arc, or if you're seeking solace and healing from trauma or debilitating stress, it could well be the time to venture out into new psychical frontiers by means of certain time-tested plants and chemicals. In fact, for some especially scarred, it might even be foolish not to, given that there might not be as much time to lose as we thought we had.
Perturbing the Brain
Granted, a state of war, or any other condition in which physical security is under threat, is not the ideal circumstance to explore inner realms. The removal of base concerns for food, shelter, and bodily safety has been a key factor in the evolution of human consciousness from such immediate distractions to plans for future (inner and outer) space exploration.
To paraphrase Terence McKenna, the late shamanologist and outspoken champion of psychedelic consciousness, if you remove stress and threat, add a lot of alkaloids, and perturb the brain, it will transcend three-dimensional space and unfold into a four-dimensional matrix. In an era in which Terror and the War Against It are being waged, the safe and supportive setting long advanced by psychedelic gurus and pundits would seem harder to provide.
But let us not suppose that psychedelics are only for the serene and that their impact on the psyche is purely pacific and unobtrusive. Because they dissolve boundaries to cognitive, emotional, and spiritual understanding, there is, in fact, something uniquely destructive about them, particularly the sort that effectively "kills" the ego through a symbolic death that blows the hatch on one's clinging obsessions and deconstructs one's entire perception of reality*a nuclear fission of the psychological world with impacts not unlike some of the far-flung effects of Sept. 11. Aldous Huxley's proposed invocation for psychedelic sessions includes the admonition: "Your ego and the [fill in your name] game are about to cease."
Deployed with ill intent, along psychotomimetic lines (the first use of LSD and mescaline earmarked by the scientific community), such an assault could wreak havoc on individuals and populations. The CIA tested LSD as a weapon for immobilizing enemies and extracting secrets from them. Conversely, hashish was allegedly used to induce visions of paradise and thereby stoke the courage of a secret order of Muslim guerrillas called the People of the Old Man of the Mountain, which terrorized Christians during the Crusades by stealthily killing their leaders; hence the term "assassins" from the Arabic Hashshashin for "hashish smokers." Subject to the wrong input, the vulnerability of the psychedelicized mind can be grossly abused. History is rife with such examples of the perversion of technology or magic.
Still, the CIA and the Saracen assassins were onto something, albeit in the most unwholesome of ways. Psychedelics are a weapon of war, the war of perceptions, priorities, and values. More readily than the reverse, they can be used to erode the will to use military force, so long as survival isn't at stake. How many thousands of Americans in the Sixties, tripping out on acid, grass, mushrooms, or mescaline, got a heightened sense of the utter absurdity of killing Vietnamese in their own country? Anti-war activists declared openly that LSD was a guerrilla weapon of pacifist resistance, and one that ultimately helped to end that war.
For Paul Krassner, a cofounder of the Yippies, taking acid was a political act, something he did on the occasion of his testifying at the Chicago Conspiracy trial. His new book, Psychedelic Trips for the Mind (High Times Books), celebrates the synchronicity of the crystallizing counterculture, a profusion of spontaneous acts of elation kindled by psychedelics that helped to consolidate the unified mind of a generation.
"The CIA originally envisioned LSD as a means of control," says Krassner, "but millions of young people became explorers of their own inner space with it instead. Acid was serving as a vehicle to help deprogram themselves from a civilization of inhumane priorities. Rand Corporation researchers speculated that LSD might be an antidote to political activism, but the CIA's scenario backfired."
The Great Beyond
If death is another name for the process of undoing to which all of our doings must and do lead, then the psychedelic experience is most certainly concerned with death, with endings that, if we could only see, become beginnings in other forms. McKenna once wrote that psychedelics anticipate the dying process, and just four month's from his own passage, he told a group at Esalen, "If psychedelics don't prepare you for the Great Beyond, I don't know what really does."
In revealing that the emperor wears no clothes, that things fall apart, psychedelics decrypt the death bound into things and offer us a chance to capture -- or recover -- the rapture of union, to snap out of the trance that sustains the illusion of our separateness. There is a diaphanous quality to things seen on the psychedelic, a sympathetic blurring of the lines, an overdrape of molecular fabric that suggests that we are a part of everything.
Such a vision proved to be the stuff of psychic liberation for the late Israeli Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nur, who tells, in Shivitti (Gateways Books and Tapes) of a miraculous breakthrough during a 1976 LSD-assisted psychotherapy session in Leiden, Holland with Dr. Jan Bastiaans, the psychiatrist who identified Concentration Camp Syndrome. During the session, De-Nur relived the hell of Auschwitz and then saw his own face over that of his tormenter, deducing that all of humanity -- including himself -- was complicit in the Nazi horror, that it could have been him on the other side of the dynamic, herding people into the ovens, that there was a collective burden of guilt for all to share.
Far from being a "bad trip" in which he recoiled at identifying with a fiendish executioner, the epiphany catalyzed a redemptive rebirth for his stricken soul, dissolving the victim/perpetrator dichotomy.
A 30-year belief in the power of psychedelics to confer such transformations spurred Rick Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS; see www.maps.org) to submit an historic protocol for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of patients afflicted with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by criminal deeds. The protocol, approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on November 2, 2001, surprisingly with no snags over the issue of neurotoxicity, will be used for the first U.S. study ever to evaluate if MDMA can have actual mental health benefits.
The FDA ruling may clear the way for an Israeli study of the efficacy of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of PTSD caused by terrorism or war. MDMA manufactured by Israeli syndicates is used in raves and clubs there, as well as by a growing colony of disaffected young army veterans and other Israeli escapists settling in Goa, India. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) suspects the Israeli mafia of being, along with dealers in Holland, behind the spike in worldwide MDMA production, some of it smuggled as "Ecstasy" tablets -- often by Hassidic couriers -- into the United States, hence the Israelis' hesitation to proceed with MDMA research until the United States approved a protocol for it first.
Now, however, according to Jorge Gleser, Deputy Director of Mental Health Services at the Israeli Ministry of Health, the Ministry will welcome the submission of a slightly revised version of the MAPS protocol. If approved, the study will probably be supervised by Dr. Moshe Kotler, former chief of psychiatry for the Israeli Defense Forces.
Doblin was in Tel Aviv fresh from meetings with Gleser and Kotler when he learned of the Sept. 11 attacks. News of the disaster brought home his sense of "Zionist duty to bring psychedelics to Israel," a nation he sees as a traumatized society where a succession of shocks over the last century has left many of the people "frightened and unable to trust, even when trust should be given." Declares Doblin, "I honestly believe that psychedelics used sensibly and therapeutically can help bring peace to the Middle East, by reducing both personal and social conflicts."
Those in power who could take hemispheric strides toward peace and accommodation if they surrendered their armor and reactionary impulses are not likely to use MDMA, LSD, or other psychedelics, in therapy or otherwise. But Doblin holds out the hope that they can learn by example, by seeing that more and more people can go through the psychedelic ego death and rebirth without losing touch with their cultures.
Dr. Charles Grob, a child psychiatrist at UCLA, who in 1994 conducted the first FDA-approved study of the effects of MDMA on human volunteers, asserts that MDMA's capacity to promote empathy could have a powerful impact on geopolitical affairs. "Well, you're not going to get Sharon and Arafat to take MDMA together," he grants, "but let their children get together one day to do it in a medical setting and have a mutually empathetic experience, seeing the humanity of the other side." Grob thinks that MDMA could have a healing effect on Americans rocked to varying degrees by the Sept. 11 attacks, by fostering empathy for the families of victims, and, less directly, for the bereft and disenfranchised anywhere in the world.
MDMA has already proven to be a bonding agent on a vast scale, within the rave movement, which is international in scope, and pacific, empathic, and celebratory in nature. Just as LSD was a bedrock for the Yippie ethos nearly two generations ago, Ecstasy could well become the social glue for a new activism, should an urgent and well-articulated need arise. MDMA dissolves boundaries for the individual's immersion into a communal group mind, according to author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in an essay entitled "Ecstasy: Prescription for a Cultural Renaissance" (included in Ecstasy: The Complete Guide by Dr. Julie Holland, Inner Traditions).
"On E, lies are inefficient," he writes, "and the peculiarities and weaknesses they are meant to obscure no longer seem like offenses against nature." Hence the doors of perception are cleansed, but without blowing them off their hinges. MDMA is unique among so-called psychedelics for leaving the ego unthreatened by inducing a pervasive sense of peace and trust that enables fruitful self-inventory, therapeutic healing, and a powerful feeling of appreciation for one's fellows.
Ironies of the Drug War
Prior to Sept. 11, the nation was beginning to enjoy an increasingly rich dialogue about the role of psychoactive drugs and the impact of the War on Drugs, led most notably by Bill Maher of ABC's "Politically Incorrect," whose comic quips roasting government drug policy complemented the dignified propriety of calls for reform by the Republican Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson. Nick Bromell, author of Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s (University of Chicago Press), observed, optimistically, in a June 2001 essay on the "New Cultural Assent to Drug Use" in The Chronicle of Higher Education that "more and more Americans are unwilling to take a hard line against drugs if that means simplistically refusing to consider why people actually take them."
The ironies of the drug war are everywhere today. "If [Sept. 11 hijacker] Mohammed Atta had been a dope dealer," Grob complains, "we would have been on him. Since he was only suspected of terrorism, he eluded our watch. Our preoccupation with illegal drugs has contributed to our head being in the sand. Last spring we gave $43 million in food aid to the Taliban for suppressing poppy production. It's affected our value system, our ethics, our intelligence-gathering ability. The government could tax drugs to subsidize its war on terrorism."
Grob, who objects to Ecstasy use at raves and clubs, says he does not advocate an open market for all drugs, but notes, "Controlled drugs are completely out of control! Anybody can do them under any circumstance, whereas trained professionals can't. Who's being controlled?"
Recent trends in medicine are redrawing the map of human consciousness as an interaction of specific biochemical agents and processes. The new study of neurotheology is examining the causal relationship between brain chemistry and spirituality. Dr. Rick Strassman, author of the briskly selling DMT: The Spirit Molecule (Inner Traditions; see www.rickstrassman.com) focuses the search for a biochemical catalyst for spirituality on a single endogenous compound, DMT, the most powerful hallucinogen known.
In the early 90s, he conducted FDA-approved research on human subjects with the material. In his book, he posits the theory that blasts of resident DMT from the pineal gland at key moments of stress, including birth and death, are responsible for spiritual awakenings. Contemplation of the grisly carnage of September 11 has strengthened his belief that upon death, bodies should not be disturbed, so that this process is able to play out and facilitate the soul's transfer to a noncorporeal state.
Funnily enough, in a May 2001 cover story that examined "How We're Wired for Spirituality" ("This is your brain on God") Newsweek managed to dance around the issue of psychedelic drugs as mediators of mystic states. The magazine's religion editor, Kenneth Woodward, strained reason when he wrote that the emotions of "losing oneself in prayer * have nothing to do with how well we communicate with God." Such a dismissal of peak experiences is tantamount to saying that the flush of joy felt by a child in the realization of his parents' love could never translate into a deepened understanding and appreciation of life.
Recently, no less an authority on religion than Huston Smith has said, "If religion cannot be equated with religious experiences, neither can it long survive their absence." As he and others, including myself, have documented, extraordinary changes in brain chemistry induced by psychotropic substances can, under the proper circumstances, occasion such experiences.
The going may be rough, of course, though that, says Smith, is no reason to discount the results. In Cleansing the Doors of Perception (Council on Spiritual Practices; see www.csp.org), he points out that religious experiences in general have fearsome properties. Those brought on by psychedelics are no different. "The drug experience," he writes, "can be like having forty-foot waves crash over you for several hours while you cling desperately to a life raft which may be swept from under you at any moment." Thus, he refutes the claim that the expansive relief from ordeal that some psychedelic experients feel is an invalid path to religion, because we do, after all, accept battlefield conversions and those made in the throes of physical crises.
Nor should we discount drug-abetted awakenings because they're one-time affairs. Echoing the great religion scholar William James, Smith notes that the ephemeral nature of peak experiences sparked by psychedelics makes them no different from any other sort of mystic encounter with the mysterium tremendum. Such soul-rocking events are indelible in spite of their transient nature, whether you're a born-again Christian or an acid mystic turned Buddhist monk. But the degree to which they will affect you over time, and the tenacity of your newfound conviction, depend on how well you integrate the often alien or otherly vision into your daily life.
So long as such stormings of heaven are outlawed and dismissed, the greater the likelihood for relapse from the cosmic consciousness they engender to the coarse materialist outlook that is consensus reality. It takes a prolonged commitment to mindfulness to prevent the sort of recidivism epitomized by Yippie Jerry Rubin's high-profile conversion to yuppiedom, just as it will require high vigilance and honesty to ensure that profiteering doesn't befoul the surging waters of heart-felt patriotism, as has already begun to occur just weeks after Sept. 11.
With religion-inspired hatred on the loose, many see religion itself as a culprit for the Sept. 11 troubles, and point to psychedelics -- or entheogens, divine-generating agents -- as a means of bypassing religion to get to the wellspring of spirituality. Because they produce the primary experience on which faith is inspired, "entheogens prove that no intermediary is necessary," states Clark Heinrich, author of God Without Religion (yet unpublished) and Strange Fruit (to be published in the US by Inner Traditions), a speculative history about the role of the Amanita muscaria mushroom in several world religions. After his own drug-induced awakening, the late British Ecstasy advocate, Nicholas Saunders (see www.ecstasy.org), surmised that religions may very well have been invented to explain entheogenic experiences.
Still another nondenominational yet transcendental usage seen for psychedelics is as a tool of hyper-ratiocinative perception, a means to deconstruct media charades and help the intellect to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty, according to Erik Davis, author of Techgnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism in the Age of Information (Three Rivers Press).
"I wouldn't necessarily want to trip in the aftermath of Sept. 11," concedes Davis, "but I can now use my psychedelic training for coping with the epistemological cyclone of a cataclysm such as this. I grew up in the cushiest reality in the history of the planet. Now I see demons pouring over the lip of my existence, but I've learned through psychedelics how to breathe through it and not believe its story."
In a subtle sense, Sept. 11 has had the effect of a virtual psychedelic experience, breaking up the world and reorganizing it. In this respect, says Krassner, the event was "an instant 'trip' for many who are now face to face with what to do with their lives, what their concept of God is." In the wake of the attacks, we have witnessed that a cataclysm can have a positive outcome. A tangible new sense of tighter community has come into being, woven from the supplest fibers of the human spirit rebounding from the obliteration of the old order.
For those with the courage to trust, the psychedelic experience can orchestrate a sort of manageable in-house cataclysm -- wreaking only epistemological havoc, not mortal carnage -- and one that can heal by enlivening these same regenerative psychical tissues. Used wisely, psychedelics can thus open the heart to compassion and enable the mind to decouple itself from neurotic or burdensome patterns.
Because of this potential for unsettling the already shakable self, if only temporarily, the tool of psychedelic consciousness is certainly not an imperative, and not for everyone; it must be utilized, managed, and regulated skillfully. In order to fill the sensorium with as much preternatural light as can be metabolized, and liberate the psychedelic experience from the underworld darkness of proscription, the practice should be sacramentalized and institutionalized under the administration of the scientists, doctors, psychologists, and spiritual leaders most knowledgeable about its propensities and potentials.
Psychedelic sessions would then be structured and guided by the collective wisdom generated from centuries of shamanic ritual, as well as from modern clinical research and lessons learned from more informal practices. Select, certifiably pure psychedelics could then be placed once again in the service of private therapy for individuals, couples counseling, and the treatment of drug or alcohol dependency, depression, and other mental maladies.
And they could also be shared in settings for congregational worship, as the Native American Church uses peyote and the Santo Daime and Uniao de Vegetal churches in Brazil use ayahuasca.
On a more massive scale, I can envision devoting a single day in the near future on which, say, five million people worldwide took a good healthful dose of MDMA (or hashish, psilocybin) and opened up their hearts and minds to each other and to the universe. Such a rite of pure Dionysian grace, involving communal song, dance, and invocations of prayer, would strum the invisible wires of the emergent global consciousness network, striking a harmonious chord from Chicago to Bangkok, Sydney to Sao Paolo, London to Delhi, Durban to Tehran.
What immediate effect this would have on our disposition toward the war would most certainly not be a tauter clench on lethal weaponry but rather a quickened pulse in the bond of human kinship we've begun to feel more acutely in the wake of Sept. 11. Such a communal connection, kicked home by a deep, soul-tickling intoxication with the Breath of (all, nonpartisan) Life, would strengthen the resolve to oppose terror in all of its guises, not just those our respective governments don't like. The weapon that psychedelic consciousness brings to the War on Terrorism is as a perceptual laser that dissolves the blind rage of which it is a symptom, dispelling the rumor of our disparateness.
By deploying psychedelics sensibly, not for jaunts of recreational escape but for mindful meditations, more and more people would come to appreciate the treasure of life here and now, in a time and place of war or not -- and know, as William Blake observed, that such "gratitude is heaven itself." Humanity's failure to exploit such opportunities for life's gratuitous graces will only prolong the condition of war.
Charles Hayes is author of Tripping: An Anthology of True-Life Psychedelic Adventures (Penguin); see www.psychedelicadventures.com. His work has appeared in Shaman's Drum, Oxford American, High Times, and E Magazine.