Archive for Reason and Magic

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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Neuropunked

In Neuropunked: 5 ways our brains are messing with our memories, author Victoria Stern describes how the brain alters our memories in ways that makes them unreliable.

“Psychologists at Northwestern University showed that each time you recall an event, your brain alters the memory by integrating new information—perhaps drawing on your current mood, activity or location, among other things.”

Our memories seem so real that we’re compelled to believe them even when they’re full of nonsense. Memories are like cheese in a mousetrap. If you’re not careful when you take the bait, you risk getting “neuropunked”–played for a sucker by your own nervous system.

In We’re all hard-wired for magic, I listed some other mental activities–mistaking correlation for causality, detecting patterns where there are none–that put us at risk of being neuropunked. It happens to all of us all the time. What could we do to stop it?

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Peychedelics are medicine for people who are trapped

By now, I suppose we’ve all got the memo: psychedelic drugs have great medical potential. The next step, for me at least, is a better understanding of how they work.

There seems to be a big gap in our knowledge. When we discuss psychedelics at the level of chemistry and neuroscience, we use very precise, technical language. We talk about molecular structure, receptor sites in the nervous system, neurotransmitters, and so forth in great detail.

Then we move over to the clinical side where, say, a psychologist administers psilocybin to an alcoholic. The technical language goes away and we talk about “integrative experiences” and “wholeness” and so on to explain why the drug works.

As I see it, the switch from precise, scientific terminology to the vague language of spirituality is one of the mysteries of psychedelics. You wouldn’t see a gap like that with an antibiotic or decongestant.

My guess is that we resort to fuzzy explanations for psychedelic therapy because they’re the best we have. That doesn’t mean that the spiritual terminology is wrong, it just means that there’s a lot more work to do. Since the current period of mystery may last awhile, I’d like to propose some vague language of my own which, I hope, will shed some light and narrow the gap.

We know that psychedelics are useful for treating a broad range of conditions—addiction, PTSD, depression, autism, and anxiety for starters. I’m curious to know what these conditions have in common. At first, I naïvely expected a simple answer—a shared gene or neurochemical or some other MacGuffin that might expose the inner workings of psychedelic therapy. I don’t think I’m going to get my simple answer any time soon.

As it happens, however, I know a number of people who live with the serious conditions that are treated with psychedelics—addicts, alcoholics, and trauma victims. When they tell their stories, they talk about a feeling of imprisonment. People with PTSD describe an overpowering fear that compels them to avoid others or stay indoors. Addicts are slaves condemned to repeating the same destructive behaviors over and over.

Psychedelics can produce a powerful experience of freedom, as I discovered first hand when I took ayahuasca at the Santo Daime church in Oregon. It was like walking into a vast, open space free of the inner noise and endless thought loops I’d carried around for years.

For an addict or trauma victim, this taste of freedom could be the blessing of a lifetime. It could be the beginning of hope. Maybe that’s a key to understanding the value of psychedelic therapy.

Peychedelics are medicine for people who are trapped.

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