Archive for Reason and Magic

What a trip!

As I noted in my last post, I’ve been thinking about our psychedelic heritage, especially the bits of psychedelia that took up residence in mainstream culture. They’re everywhere and they seem innocent enough, but they can reveal much for those with eyes to see.

Take the phrase “what a trip.” People use this exclamation when they’ve done or seen something unusual that impressed them. Even Aunt Mabel, who got her opinions about psychedelics from Nancy Reagan, might say “what a trip!” after her first visit to the Mall of America.

Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find the term in its native context. Light shows are “trippy.” Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was advertised as “the ultimate trip.”

Go all the way down and you’ll discover the origins of the term in the intersection between psychedelic chemicals and the human nervous system. When you take one of the classic hallucinogens like LSD or psilocybin, the subjective experience can be like going on a journey. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end with sights and stages along the way, often unfolding in a narrative progression like a movie or a work of literature.

Compare the psychedelic trip with the experiences and slang terms of other drugs. When you take an intoxicant like alcohol or marijuana or cocaine, the resulting high is static. You take off into a state of euphoria or numbness and you stay there until it wears off. You get stoned, wasted, blitzed, blasted, bombed, fucked up, or otherwise rendered semi-conscious by words that imply violence and death.

With psychedelics, however, you travel, you go on a trip. Nobody talks about “tripping on Budweiser.”

We could stop here, but is there a deeper level of meaning? If so, we might have to forget about language and look to neuroscience. How do these substances act on the nervous system to produce the subjective experience of traveling?

That kind of question is way over my pay grade, but I’m going to take a shot anyway. I’m guessing that the “trip” experience is somehow related to the parts of the brain that produce the ego, the sense of self.

The ego connects and organizes our perceptions, thoughts, and memories. Normally, everything comes together in a single point of view. Under the influence of psychedelics, however, the ego can loosen its grip, resulting in the well-known phenomenon of the self dissolving into the universe.

Without the glue of ego, the perceptions and events that make up our experience may come apart, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle jumping out of the picture. We’re free to select and examine the pieces one at a time, to rearrange them in a creative pattern. The result could be a sequence or narrative.

What a trip!

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Our psychedelic heritage

What do you think of when you hear the word “psychedelic?” Swirly graphics? Electric guitars? Timothy Leary? It’s easy to come up with stock images, even for people who wouldn’t dream of taking LSD or other psychedelic drugs. We’ve lived with artwork, music, and language inspired by psychedelics for 50 years, long enough to make them familiar to everyone including Aunt Mabel who voted for Richard Nixon.

The familiarity is one half of a paradox. We slap psychedelic graphics on everything from clothing to magazine ads, but the psychedelic experience itself is forbidden. If you’re a fan of the Beatles, you can listen all you want, but if you’re curious about the substance that inspired the music, you’re risking a lengthy jail term and a hefty fine.

The taboos extend beyond the substances to the people who use them. I’m old enough to remember the infamous “LSD episode” of the sixties cop show Dragnet. It portrayed psychedelic users like “Blue Boy,” the guy below, as freakish monsters. It was typical for the media of the time.

I’ve been trying to think of another paradox like the one we’ve created with psychedelics—another case where mainstream America adopted the language and trappings of a group they despised and suppressed. The only other example I can think of is African American culture.

At the time of that Dragnet episode (1967), black music and slang and styles were becoming common, but the people themselves lived in the shadow of segregation and lynching. The Civil Rights laws came along at about the same time as the War on Drugs. One paradox started to close as another opened.

Now we have a black president. Popular music and TV are dominated by African American culture. Psychedelics, however, are just starting to emerge from the deep freeze.

Perhaps we’ll have a Civil Rights moment, like we did in the sixties, when we admit that psychedelic consciousness is just another mind/body state like black skin is just another kind of pigmentation. We can drop the boogeyman nonsense and use psychedelics as serious, practical tools for research, medicine, and spiritual discovery.

For now, while we’re waiting for the War on Drugs to collapse from exhaustion, we can start to reclaim our psychedelic heritage. The artifacts are in plain sight. That tie-died t-shirt? It’s been gathering dust at the back of the closet, but it was inspired by a powerful vision and it can be powerful again with a little love and pride.

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The problem of living with magic

Magic, like love, will find you. You can hide. You can scoff. Resistance is futile.

At the very least, you’ll be on the receiving end of other people’s magic. It might be a friend who bugs you about your horoscope or your Representative in Congress who believes in Noah’s Ark and votes accordingly.

If the believers don’t get you, your own brain will. Magic can creep out at any moment and grab you with prophetic dreams or flying saucers. Since the magic within you is the strongest, it’s also the most convincing and the hardest to resist.

We’re stuck with magic like we are with a million other evolutionary relics from jealousy to the appendix. The problem is not how to get rid of it—we can’t and, if we could, we wouldn’t be human beings any more—the problem is how to live with it.

Common sense advises preparation and familiarity, even for skeptics. That way, when magic shows up, it won’t take you by surprise and sweep you away.

It’s also good to bring a map of the territory showing well-marked hazards. The biggest peril may be literalism, the trap of taking unusual experiences at face value. If you’re too quick to accept your own experience, you may believe that you really are reading minds or seeing the future.

The boundaries of the danger zone are pretty clear. People who claim to have information or abilities that aren’t available to everyone else through ordinary means have left the realm of magic and crossed over into the occult. It’s one thing if the Tarot cards say that you can find true love; it’s something else if they say that you can levitate.

Evolution has us in an awful plight. If we ignore magic or pretend that it doesn’t exist, we’re shutting the door on a big part of human experience. On the other hand, if we go native and embrace magic, we run the risk of occult delusion. We need a safe path through the horns of the dilemma.

I cautiously recommend meditation to people who want to dip their toes in the waters of the inner abyss. Meditation—along with prayer, ritual, fasting, psychedelics, ecstatic dance, and lots of other techniques—clears the mind and lets in the beauty and wonder of the universe.

Meditation is about as innocuous as it gets, but there’s no guarantee. My old meditation group started with twenty minutes twice a day and ended with a plan to transform the world into a global theocracy.

The sad part is that a lot of people need meditation. They’re stressed out and hungry for a spiritual life, but they look at the shenanigans of meditation teachers and they sensibly flee in the opposite direction.

I’m not sure if there’s any good answer to the problem of living with magic, but I think that it makes sense to look at case studies of groups and individuals who explored the magical depths of human psychology and returned in triumph or tragedy. After two generations of the New Age, there are plenty of wise men and women who learned from their mistakes. They have a lot to offer.

I believe that these questions will become more important as our society loosens up and evolves toward enlightenment. For now, I’d like to pass on the two best pieces of advice I ever received:

Let love be your guide, and keep your crap detector turned up on high.

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