Psychedelics, Society, and Reality

That tweet came after I listened to several episodes of the recent NYMag/Psymposia podcast series “Power Trip.” Having now finished the series and shared a mixed review, I wanted to collect further thoughts on the subject. The NYMag/Psymposia series focuses on the dangers of both underground and clinically regulated psychedelic psychotherapy. The basic criticisms being leveled by coproducers Lily Kay Ross and David Nickles at what we could call “the psychedelic movement” are important and worth amplifying. These chemicals put those who ingest them into states of heightened suggestibility and thus increased vulnerability. Given the potentials for extreme transference and projection, and the probable incompatibility of the traditional indigenous shamanic social role with (post)modern western culture, psychedelic guides/therapists have a special responsibility to empower those they work with by upholding clear agreements, sexual boundaries, and ethical standards. Knowing many people who work in this field, both above and below ground, I think it is fair to say that the majority of practitioners are working with tremendous integrity to make these healing experiences available to ailing people. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of evidence of loose boundaries and less than virtuous behavior. Despite my criticisms of the way it was all packaged and delivered (see this twitter thread), Ross and Nickles’ plea to slow down and listen to the stories of those who have been trampled in the rush to mainstream psychedelics is worth your attention.

Bracketing Buddha’s First Noble Truth, I’m privileged enough to have gotten to this point in my life without debilitating trauma or mental health struggles. As a result, my interest in psychedelics has been primarily political, philosophical, and spiritual, rather than psychotherapeutic. “Political” because since I was 18 and began to seriously research the Drug War and the psychedelic counterculture, it was immediately apparent to me that a society intent on repressing such powerful consciousness technologies must be profoundly unwell. As I discussed in this recent Psychedelics Today podcast, I worry about the corporate capture of these medicines. Consumer capitalism has swallowed everything it’s touched, including much of the counterculture. I used to think psychedelics were impervious to commodification, but now I am not so sure. On their own, these chemicals are simply “non-specific amplifiers,” as Stanislav Grof puts it. Our intentions shape their effects. We should not be so naive as to think they could not be used to further the aims of the military-industrial complex or for broader cultural control.

I appreciate the work the non-profit organization MAPS has been doing to advance psychedelic medicine. This despite the fact MAPS founder Rick Doblin has been criticized for taking money from Peter Thiel and Rebecca Mercer. I don’t like their politics, either, but I tend to agree with Doblin that those trying to undue the repression of these sacred substances should be willing to build bridges across political divides. I also think those of us critical of the capitalist world-order need to spend less time preaching to the choir about how evil corporations are and more time designing and building alternatives (e.g., social threefolding).

While I think medicalization may be one of the paths forward, I am skeptical of an allopathic medical model that treats isolated brains as though the human psyche could be understood or healed in a way decontextualized from its social and cosmological contexts. I do wonder if the religious or cognitive freedom approach might not bear more nourishing fruit (e.g., see this talk on the psychedelic eucharist and this paper on psychedelics and religious studies). These issues came up in my conversation with Earth and Fire, the founders of Erowid.org back in 2017.

When it comes to the metaphysical implications of psychedelic experience, I’m grateful to have a chapter in an upcoming anthology put out by Bloomsbury titled Philosophy and Psychedelics: Frameworks for Exceptional Experience (forthcoming 2022). Here’s the original draft that had to be shortened substantially for inclusion in the anthology: “Alchemical Consciousness After Descartes: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism as Psychedelic Realism

Abstract: The study of consciousness is today’s most exciting philosophical frontier. Such an inquiry provides an obvious example of the relevance of psychedelic experience: what better way could there be for coming to terms with the intimate mystery our own consciousness than through the ingestion of psychedelic—literally, “mind-manifesting”—chemicals? In the chapter to follow, I offer a creative reading of Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, reinterpreting his famous Gedankenerfahrung (“thought-experiment”) as a sort of psychedelic trip through hell and heaven and back again. I next turn to Whitehead’s process-relational reimagining of modern Cartesian philosophy, detailing how his approach more adequately incorporates the psychedelic ground of consciousness. I argue that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism opens up the possibility of a psychedelic realism that would allow us to take the ontologically revelatory nature of these experiences seriously. My hope is that this comparative reading of Descartes and Whitehead opens up a road not taken by modern natural science and philosophy, one leading away from the self-alienation and cosmic disenchantment that have so plagued contemporary science and society. Self-integration and world re-enchantment are possible. Ingested responsibly and in service of philosophical inquiry, psychedelics may act as alchemical catalysts providing an especially powerful medicinal aid in service of this Great Work.

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