Some notes toward a talk I’m giving at Burning Man next week. I’ll be at camp Cosmicopia (located at 3:45 and Ephesus). The talk is on Wednesday at 4pm.
The word “psychedelic” was coined in the 1950s by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in a letter exchanged with the famed author and philosopher Aldous Huxley. Osmond had recently supplied Huxley with a dose of mescaline. Huxley later sent Osmond a rhyme containing his own suggested neologism: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (phanero meaning ‘to show’ or ‘make visible’ and thymos meaning ‘spiritedness’ in Greek). Osmond countered with the lines “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.” The word means “soul manifesting” (from ψυχή, meaning psyche or soul in Latin), and δήλος, delos, meaning ‘manifest’). Osmond was among the first medical scientists to study the effects of Albert Hoffman’s recently invented chemical compound LSD-25. He was convinced that the psychedelic state could help psychiatrists understand and treat schizophrenia.
Many burners would probably agree that psychedelics offer treatments for a whole variety of individual ailments, whether alcoholism or addiction, PTSD, depression, anxiety due to being diagnosed with a terminal illness, etc. I want to suggest that psychedelics may also provide us with at least part of the solution to wider social, economic, and ecological problems. They are not a cure all, but given the short time-frame human civilization has to fundamentally transform itself before cascading catastrophe drives our species and many others beside into extinction, I think our only hope comes in the form of a drastic chemical—or better, alchemical—intervention. Only the re-birth of a psychedelic religion can save us now.
The global religion of consumer capitalism is predicated upon the belief that consciousness is fundamentally atomic and individualistic, that it is produced by the brain and contained within the skull. The word capital derives from the Latin word “caput,” meaning “head,” and originally referred to the number of cattle a rich person owned. Today, as always, rich people also own human heads. One of the principle lessons of psychedelics as far as I can tell is that, as Daniel Pinchbeck put it, they “break open the head,” revealing the cosmological ground of consciousness. Richard Doyle, author of Darwin’s Pharmacy, goes so far as to rename psychedelics “ecodelics” because of the way they dissolve the skin-thin boundary between human beings and their earthly habitats. What does it mean that so many plants and fungi contain psychoactive analogs of the human brain’s endogenous neurochemicals? Banisteriopsis caapi, psilocybin mushrooms, ergot fungus, cannabis—even our front lawns contain trace amounts of DMT! The nervous system is an ecologically extended network of chemical interactions. The human brain has been co-evolving with these other organisms for tens of thousands of years. Consciousness is not in the head. Consciousness is an emergent, symbiotic process that is planetary in extent.
It’s no mistake that religion of consumer capitalism requires that these substances be illegal. In order for the global economy to function, we have to continue to believe that we are skin-encapsulated egos (as Alan Watts put it) and that the meaning of life is determined by how much we own. We are raised to believe that human nature is basically selfish, that nature is basically cruel, and death is the end, so we may as well push others out of the way to get as much as we can while we’re still alive. We have to continue to commit what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by attributing more value to paper or plastic money than to human relationships, human lives, or the lives of other species. Our civilization is willing to destroy the entire planetary ecosystem to maintain corporate profit margins.
Have you ever taken a look at a $20 bill while tripping? Try it next time. I can’t help but laugh in astonishment whenever I do. This is the lifeblood of our civilization? We forget so easily that money is merely symbolic. You can’t eat it, drink it, or make love to it. When we put a bill on the counter or swipe our credit card at Starbucks, we act as though some metaphysical law forces the barista to make us our latte. In fact, we are entering into a social agreement. Capitalism does everything in its power to background this agreement, to background the alienating social relations that are required for the system to function. Capitalism tricks us into thinking that money is the only real measure of value and that this value necessarily determines the course of our lives. I’d wager that American money is green because this leads us to unconsciously associate it with photosynthesizing plants—which by the way are the only truly energy producing organisms on the planet. All the energy on earth enters into the food chain because plants have learned to transform sunlight into carbs. Not to mention the fact that most of the energy driving the global economy comes from fossilized plants.
Capitalism is a form of black magic. It is a dark, soul- and earth-destroying religion. Like all religions, it’s founded on certain rituals: shopping, working, watching TV or otherwise being inundated by advertisements, etc. It has its holy sites: malls, movie theaters, car dealerships. And it has its crusades: wars in the Middle East on behalf of “freedom” and “democracy” (code words for capitalism). Most modern industrial people think of themselves as entirely secular, but no religious believer ever considers their own religion to be just another religious belief system. No, our capitalist civilization, like all prior civilizations, thinks it has found the one true rational way to do things.
The reason I think psychedelics provide part of the solution to our crisis is that they allow our cultural conditioning to fall away, permitting us to re-imagine our values, our symbols, and our stories. They reveal the deeper connections between all things, the way the very idea of property or ownership does violence to the creative and sacred dimension of the universe. They allow us to rediscover the mystery of existence that has always been hidden in plain site. Psychedelic chemicals catalyze the formation of new rituals. Normally, ritualization is an unconscious process that takes many generations to take shape. Unfortunately, we don’t have many generations. If our civilization cannot fundamentally transform itself within the space of a few years, the odds of our survival are slim. Don’t get me wrong, these substances are extremely dangerous. They come with huge risks. Anyone ingesting them risks losing their mind. Of course, the default mind is suffering from a disease. Maybe losing it isn’t such a bad idea.
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