I’m giving another talk on Monday (9/29) on psychedelics (the last one was at Burning Man) as part of a panel discussion for the Entheogenic Research, Integration, and Education (ERIE) student group at CIIS. This one will focus on the psychedelic roots of philosophy, particularly as they relate to the Eleusinian mystery rites. I’ll paste some of my notes below.
Abstract: Since its origins in ancient Greece, Western philosophy has sought out solutions to psychological, cosmological, and ontological problematics. Nowadays, philosophical problems and their solutions tend to come in the form of written formulas. There is no doubt that language can have a profoundly mind-manifesting effect on its speakers and listeners, but ancient Greek philosophers did not limited themselves to alphabetic solutions: they also partook of chemical solutions. In this short presentation, I’d like to revisit the pharmacological roots of the philosophical tradition in ancient Greece, unpacking its still relevant insights into the nature of the human soul, the origin of the universe, and the ground of being.
My goal is to initiate an anemnetic revival of the long repressed psychedelic dimension of Western philosophy. Building on the work of scholars like Michael Rinella and Peter Kingsley, I’ll argue that the West, too, is historically rooted in a unique sort of shamanic practice that has been excised from our origin story in order to serve the dominant political narrative about the rise of disembedded Enlightenment rationality. Psychedelics are perhaps the most important spiritual technology available to philosophy, opening the doors of perception so as to allow for profound experiential insights into cosmogenesis and our human potential to become creative participants in its ongoing evolutionary expression.
I. What are psychedelics?
They are alchemical substances that, when smoked, snorted, chewed, injected, or transdermally absorbed, make human beings conscious of the Divine Imagination.
Terence McKenna on Divine Imagination: “I think of the Divine Imagination as the class of all things both possible and beautiful in a kind of reverse Platonism. The attractor is at the bottom of a very deep well into which all phenomena are cascading and being brought into a kind of compressed state. This is happening in the biological realm through the career of the evolution of life. It’s simultaneously happening in the world as we experience it within our culture, in history. History is the track in the snow left by creativity wandering in the Divine Imagination.” Terence equates Divine Imagination with Chaos, which he says “is not the enemy of order, but the birthplace of it.” (p. 7)
Reversed, inverted, or psychedelic Platonism?:Reading Plato in the context of the Eleusianian psychedelic rituals reveals that the standard reading of “Platonism” has it exactly backwards. What does it mean to say we are living inside a cave? Psychedelics reveal the play of images upon the cave wall to consciousness, they make us aware of illusion, of the aesthetic basis of experience. Can they also show us the way out of the cave? Are they just mind-altering chemicals that confuse the normal dualities of rational subjectivity, or can they also become alchemical solutions that infuse divine creativity into human souls, that awaken us to our highest human potential as conscious participants in cosmogenesis? I think they provided exactly this to the fathers of philosophy, Plato and Socrates. Psychedelics need philosophy, lest they allow us to rest in confusion. The West has its own shamanic, indigenous tradition. We can learn a lot from other cultural traditions, but we should not forget our own lineage in the process (I assume here that my audience is mostly White, or at least was raised within the context of Western civilization).
Psychedelics transform the phenomenal content of our rational, waking, daytime consciousness into a play of images upon a cave wall. They call the very idea of “Reality” itself into question. What’s real? What’s virtual? How are we to tell the difference? They also throw the idea of the “Self” into question—not just the phenomenal surfaces of experience (sensory objects), but its transcendental depths (subjective concepts and intuitions unified by the apperception of the I). Psychedelics initiate us into the creative polarity of experience, revealing the way self and world, mind and reality, remain always in tension, never settling accounts so as to provide for some fixed foundation or taken for granted ground. Psychedelics make manifest to consciousness the groundlessness, the abyssal Chaos, that lies more or less hidden at the base of all things: (now)here we meet our maker, our mother. Such psychedelically induced auto-revelations of the origins of reality forces those initiated to become metaphysicians, doctors of the soul, who seek not to cure death (as physicians do), but to contemplate it endlessly. Philosophers (mistaken sometimes for claiming it to be a tomb) make a temple of the body, as though its very purpose and design was to manifest psyche, to make soul. Philosophy is Wisdom’s response to love. Love is what birthed us, it is our womb. Philosophy, then, is learning to die, which means learning to turn the body from a tomb into a temple. This was Socrates’ most important instruction to all lovers of wisdom, uttered at the birthplace of philosophy in an Athenian prison cell. Socrates, an initiate into the Eleusinian mystery religion (a lysergic acid fueled ritual), inaugurated the Western philosophical tradition while awaiting a heroic dose of hemlock. He was well aware that it was going to be a very intense trip.
Terence McKenna again on illusion and divine imagination: “ Psychedelics somehow change our channel from the evolutionarily important channel giving traffic, weather, and stock market reports to the one playing the classical music of an alien civilization. In other words, we tend to tune to the channel that has a big payback in the immediate world. It seems obvious to me that there are channels of the imagination that are not so tailored for human consumption…The Divine Imagination is the reality behind appearances. Appearance is simply the local slice of the Divine Imagination.” … “What psychedelics reveal is so intense and extreme an example that it argues strongly that the imagination is not the human imagination at all…The psychedelic experience at its intense levels goes beyond the terms of human motivation. It seems rather to enter an ontological reality of its own, one that the human being is simply privileged to observe briefly. A deep psychedelic experience says no more about a person’s personality than it does the continent of Africa. They are, in fact, independent objects. To my mind, the Divine imagination is the source of all creativity in our dreams, in our psychedelic experiences, in the jungles, in the currents of the ocean, and in the organization of protozoan and microbial life.” (p. 14-17)
Psychedelics direct our attention away from the instrumental concerns of survival (masses, positions, dimensions, etc.) and refocus it on the aesthetic dimensions of experience so we might learn not just to survive but to thrive.
II. What is the eucharist?
By invoking the eurcharist, I’m attempting to put psychedelics (which for much of the modern era have been displaced into the recreational arena) back into a ritual context. Re-ritualization is relatively straightforward, since we need only return to the models provided us by the ancient mystery religions. I’m going to focus on Eleusis since its mysteries are intimately bound up with the origins of philosophy. The precise nature of the annual rites at Eleusis were secret, but we can reconstruct a good deal of their meaning. They are thought to be a recapitulation of older, pre-Olympian goddess-worshipping rituals originating on the island of Crete. The major difference is that the older Cretan rites were celebrated publicly. Eleusis was an attempt to preserve these rites secretly, so as to protect them from the onslaught of patriarchy, which was uneasy, to say the least, with the implications of their psychedelically-induced revelations. These revelations offered insight into the mysterious death-rebirth cycle of plant life. The Eleusinian mystery rites were based on the myth of Demeter, mother earth, and Persephone, her daughter, who would become queen of the underworld after dining on a few pomegranate seeds while in hell with Hades. The myth is a symbolic representation of the seasonal shifts in vegetation (or perhaps these seasonal shifts are symbolic of the myth?).
Homer on this myth (a summary): “Persephone, playing in a meadow, came across a large and wondrous narcissus. As she reached for it, the ground gave way and the dark lord of the underworld, Hades, appeared on his golden chariot. He carried her off screaming to Zeus and the gods for help. Demeter heard her and rushed to find what had happened. For nine days she wandered the earth. On the tenth she appealed to the Sun who sees all in his daily travels. He reported that Zeus had given Persephone to his brother Hades to be his wife. Demeter, filled with grief, was angry. She removed all signs of her divinity and as an old woman walked the earth in quest of her daughter. At Eleusis she sat on the outskirts of town near a well; Clement of Alexandria noted that sitting on a well “is even now prohibited to those who are initiated, lest they should appear to mimic the weeping goddess.” Keleos’s four young daughters wanted to help her, and with their mother’s permission brought her home. Stepping onto the threshold, the old woman touched the roof beam with her head and a heavenly light filled the room. The family was filled with amazement and fear, but no one guessed she was a goddess. The girls’ mother, Metaneira, offered her fine chair, but Demeter waited in silence. Finally a waiting-woman offered a stool covered with white fleece. Demeter sat down, covered herself with her veil, and waited in silence, pining for her daughter. This refers to the silence of the mysteries and the fleece-covered stool on which the initiate sat. The waiting-woman induced Demeter to smile. Metaneira brought a goblet of sweet wine, but the goddess refused, requesting instead a drink of barley, water, and mint, referring to the mystery-drink. Later Metaneira gave Demeter her baby to rear. Demeter secretly fed the boy only the ambrosia of the gods, and at night concealed him in the embers of the fire, like a log. In this way he grew like a god, but Metaneira spied one night and shrieked at the sight of her son in the fire. Furious, Demeter snatched him out and exclaimed that he would have become ageless and immortal. Revealing herself as a goddess, she requested the people of Eleusis to build a great shrine in which she would instruct them in her rites. When the temple was finished, Demeter sat there pining for her daughter. Spring came but fields produced no growth, for heartbroken Mother Nature kept the seeds unsprouted in the ground. The human race would have perished, but Zeus took notice and one by one sent the other Olympians to summon her, but she spurned them all, inconsolable until she saw her daughter. Finally Zeus dispatched Hermes, guide of the souls of the dead, to entreat Hades to release Persephone. Hermes led her to the world above and Demeter ran to her, asking: “While you were in the underworld, surely you didn’t eat anything? For if you did, you’ll return for one-third of the seasons.” Persephone admitted she’d been tricked into eating some pomegranate seeds, and therefore had to spend one-third of each year as queen of the underworld and two-thirds among the rest of the gods. Demeter released the power that caused seeds to sprout, grow, and produce blossoms and harvest. And before returning to the ranks of the immortals she instructed the leaders of Eleusis in the sacred mysteries.” (http://www.theosophy-nw.org/theosnw/world/med/me-savage.htm)
This myth is suggestive of a correspondence between the death/rebirth cycle of plants and the death/rebirth cycle of human beings. Just like plants move from seed, to stem, to bud, to flower, to fruit, and back to seed again, human souls grow from birth, through infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and senility until death, at which point the soul leaves its temporary embodiment to become the seed for some future reincarnation. Like plants, human souls share in an immortality of sorts. In dying to our individual bodies, we live forever in the soul of the world. Eleusis (Eleuseos) literally means “the coming.” The child that Demeter was feeding ambrosia and placing in the fire to “grow like a god” is a hint of the divine child to come. In fact, there is more than a hint of the incarnation in the Eleusinian myth. It is a myth about the mystery of mortality, about the path through death to what lies beyond it.
The mystery rites at Eleusis took place over 9 days, symbolizing the 9 months of human gestation. Stages of major mystery ritual are symbolic of the archetypal perinatal matrices (Neptune—>Saturn—>Pluto—>Uranus).
Ingesting a psychedelic turns the world inside out, such that the soul extends beyond the skull to encompass us, while the seeming solidity of matter dissolves into the infinite plasticity of energy.
The Eleusinian ritual was an early form of the rite later celebrated by Christians as the Eurcharist. Demeter represented grain or bread for the Greeks. The annual rites also included invocations of Dionysius, another vegetation god, representing grapes or wine.
Terence on the psychedelic eucharist, the kykeon: “It has to be understood that psychedelics are a way to the Gaian mind. They are not metaphors for sacraments, they are real sacraments, and their efficaciousness can have political consequences.”
“Pharmakon” in Greek can mean both poison and remedy. In this sense, psychedelics are poison, in that they tend to catalyze ego death; on the other hand, they are remedies, in that it is only through the death of the ego that human beings are initiated into the true meaning of life and so are healed of the alienation that plagues the rational mind, which perceives itself as separate from the body, from earth, and from the wider cosmos.
Alphabetic technology and Alchemical technology: Plato was living amidst a crisis in consciousness brought about by a mutation in his media ecology: the older analog technology of speech was being augmented by the more recently invented digital technology of alphabetic writing. Psychedelics make both the limits and the power of oral or written language very apparent…
Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness (trilogues of McKenna, Sheldrake, and Abraham).
Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere by Richard Doyle
Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens by Michael Rinella