Archive for Reason and Magic

Dying to Know

Here’s a new documentary about a remarkable and historic friendship. If you have any interest in psychedelics or eastern spirituality, you probably know about the work of Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, formerly known as Richard Alpert. Dying to Know follows their relationship from the early days of psychedelic research at Harvard to Leary’s death and beyond. Dying to Know–produced and directed by Gay Dillingham and narrated by Robert Redford–opens in the Bay Area on July 10th.

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A turning point for psychedelics

The psychedelic community is about to get a lot bigger. Up to now it was a select group of visionaries and thrill-seekers. In ten years, however, when psychedelics are available by prescription, the biggest demand may come from ordinary folks. The people who check into clinics for psychedelic therapy will be cancer patients, war vets, alcoholics and others looking for relief more than cosmic enlightenment.

Enlightenment will occur, of course, and spread out way beyond the salons of the cognoscenti. How will society change when anyone can walk into a local clinic and trade their fear for inner peace?

There’s so much promise, but there are also a bunch of obstacles. The folks from middle America who could really benefit from psychedelics won’t get the help they need if they’re held back by prejudice and misinformation. That’s where we come in. It’s up to us—the members of the psychedelic community—to clear the path.

We’re like the pioneers in covered wagons who drove west through the unknown. Once they settled the new land, they held out their hands to the folks back home, the farmers and shopkeepers and schoolteachers who followed once they knew it was safe.

Now it’s our turn to hold out our hands. We’re the psychedelic welcoming committee.

It’s not too early to start crafting a friendly message for newcomers who are suspicious of the whole business. Something like:

“Welcome, friend. We’re here to help you have a good journey. If you follow the guidelines, you’ll be fine. The psychedelic experience is natural and deeply human. You may encounter surprises, but you won’t be alone. We’re your companions all the way and we have a lot of experience bringing travelers safely home.”

The great work that began with Albert Hoffman is about to begin in earnest. We’ve had the experience to ourselves for long enough. It’s time to open the door and welcome the liberal and the conservative, the sick and the well, the people we love and the people we hate. The great work won’t be accomplished until everyone has the opportunity to cross the threshold.

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LSD: The Opera

Yes, it’s an opera based on Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD. The orchestra contains a number of instruments designed by Harry Partch, including the Diamond Marimba and the Cloud Chamber Bowls, which are “tuned with 43 tones to the octave.” The LSD molecule appears as a character performed by three sopranos. Who says classical music is boring? Details at LSD: The Opera.


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International Forum on Consciousness

The annual Bioethics Forum, held here in Madison every May, is now the International Forum on Consciousness. Here’s a description of the conference from the website of the host, the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center:

Coordinated by Promega Corporation and the BTC Institute, the International Consciousness Forum promises a lively two days of information-sharing and discussion regarding important – and often challenging – topics related to the exploration of consciousness. As always, the Forum will bring together a wonderful group of presenters. Representative of diverse disciplines, they will share their life experiences and perspectives, this year as related to Conscious Evolution: The Awakening.

This conference–May 7th and 8th this year–is always one of the most interesting and exciting events in Madison. I hope to see you there.

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Brazilian prisoners attend Santo Daime services

A Brazilian prison grants some inmates a brief furlough to attend services of the Santo Daime religion where they consume the psychedelic beverage ayahausca. According to this article in the New York Times, about 15 prisoners a month, including murderers and rapists, visit a temple in the rainforest along with therapists and prison guards who sometimes drink the Daime tea.

“’I’m finally realizing I was on the wrong path in this life,’ said Celmiro de Almeida, 36, who is serving a sentence for homicide at a prison four hours away on a road that winds through the jungle. ‘Each experience helps me communicate with my victim to beg for forgiveness,’ said Mr. de Almeida, who has taken ayahuasca nearly 20 times at the sanctuary here.”

This innovative program appealed to Brazilian authorities as a way to ease the burden on the nation’s overcrowded, underfunded, and violent prison system. The American penal system is a national nightmare and reform seems to be one area where conservatives and liberals can find common ground. We have our own Santo Daime churches. Perhaps they could help.

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Shroder takes the plunge

As he was working on his book Acid Test (reviewed in the previous post), Tom Shroder decided to conduct some in-depth research. His account of his first psychedelic journey in 35 years appears here on Shroder’s lucid style makes his story far more readable than the usual trip report. I can’t recommend that you go it alone like Shroder did–experienced guides can provide a deeper and safer journey–but his tale of psychedelic rediscovery is well worth your time.

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“Acid Test” gets the story straight

Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal by Tom Shroder is the book that a lot of us in the psychedelic research community have been waiting for. To understand why, consider the following excerpt in which Shroder retells the famous story of Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD.

“First the drug had to be tested extensively on animals to determine any acutely toxic effects that Hofmann had merely been lucky to survive. Animal tests would eventually provide some curious results. Mice given LSD moved erratically and showed ‘alterations in licking behavior.’ Cats’ hair stood on end and they salivated, indications they were having hallucinations that were threatening or enticing. When researchers introduced mice into the cats’ cages, instead of attacking, the felines would ignore the rodents’ intrusion or sometimes even appear frightened by them. Dosed chimpanzees did not show any obvious signs of being affected, but the normal chimps around them tended to become extremely upset, which Hofmann attributed to the test animals’ failure to maintain social norms perceptible only to the chimps.”

Acid Test coverShroder enlivens this familiar story with intriguing details and remarkably clear prose. He turns a journalist’s critical eye on a notoriously fuzzy topic. There’s no metaphysical speculation in Acid Test, just moving stories of people whose lives were changed by nature’s most powerful and mysterious psychoactive chemicals.

Shroder focuses on three individuals:

Nicholas Blackston is a former US Marine who fought in Iraq. His horrific experiences in combat left him scarred by post-traumatic stress disorder.

Michael Mithoefer is a psychiatrist who discovered the transformative power of LSD as a college student. He conducts research studies using the psychedelic/stimulant MDMA (“Ecstasy”).

Rick Doblin is the founder of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. He has been a leading advocate of psychedelic research for decades.

Shroder weaves the stories of these three lives together with the twisty legal and scientific history of psychedelics. He uncovers some fascinating and little-known pieces of the tale. For example:

“By the mid-1950s, researchers had experimented with LSD during therapy for various neuroses, depression, addiction, psychosomatic illness, and emotional and physical trauma. Scores of trials including hundreds of subjects were conducted, and most reported positive results. In 1954, psychiatrists at an English hospital set aside an entire ward for conducting LSD therapy with patients who had severe, chronic, treatment-resistant mental illness. They concluded that sixty-one out of ninety-four patients recovered or improved after six months. LSD appeared to be ‘of utmost value in psychotherapy,’ the lead investigators concluded…”

Shroder makes it clear that psychedelics were a well-established and promising tool for research and therapy in the 1950s and 60s. We can’t calculate the cost of the War on Drugs to human life or scientific progress. We can, however, be grateful that organizations like MAPS and the Heffter Research Institute kept the flame burning during dark times.

The stories of Shroder’s three protagonists come together near the end of the book when Nicholas Blackston enrolls in a MAPS-sponsored study on the use of MDMA for treating PTSD. Ecstasy helped Blackston escape from the prison of war trauma and discover new freedom. Today, he’s an eloquent advocate for psychedelic therapy and living proof of its success.

If you’re new to psychedelic studies, this book is an excellent starting point. Shroder, the editor of the Washington Post magazine, knows how to present a big and complicated story in human terms. He has a gift for wrapping hard issues in a compelling narrative. The one thing I would have done differently is to shift the balance of the book’s content to include more on psychedelics and less biographical detail. That’s a quibble, however.

I hope that Tom Shroder continues to cover psychedelic research. We need him.

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The light returns

One holiday tradition at my house is watching Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, a Jim Henson Muppets TV special from 1978 based on the book by Russell and Lillian Hoban. Right now, I’m thinking of the scene near the end where Ma Otter and her son Emmet are walking home late at night after the tragedy that cost them their most valuable possessions and any hope of a happy Christmas. Ma says “I guess I should feel pretty bad, but the funny thing is that I don’t. I feel pretty good.”

2014 was a lousy time for a lot of us. I can’t recall another year when so many of my friends and loved ones struggled through serious, life threatening illnesses. Cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s. The social world wasn’t much healthier. My state and nation buckled under their load of violence and injustice.

Still, here we are on New Years Eve, ten days out from the Winter Solstice, and the light is returning to the world. Like Ma Otter, I’m feeling pretty good.

Maybe we needed some adversity to bring out the best in us, or maybe I’m just starting to pay attention, but this long and weary year offered a lot of kindness. I’ve been overwhelmed by countless acts of basic human goodness from hospital staff, caregivers, emergency workers, cab drivers, casual acquaintances, and total strangers. If the world does come unglued, maybe we’ll take care of each other after all.

My biggest inspiration of 2014 came from the community of people working in psychedelic research. I spent a good chunk of the year in the company of the scientists, MDs, and psychologists who do the research and the organizers, business people, philanthropists, and volunteers who support the work. I’ve never seen another project or institution maintain such high standards of professional quality. It’s humbling.

When you have an example like that in front of you, what else can you do but try to live up to it? That’s my goal for the new year.

I hope your new year brings the same care and kindness that inspired me in the last twelve months. Keep in touch and I’ll see you in 2015.

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