Archive for Reason and Magic

“Aya Awakenings:” Buckle up and hold on!

Given the current popularity of Ayahuasca—the psychedelic beverage brewed by Amazonian shamans—it’s not surprising that documentary filmmakers have discovered the subject. Pretty soon we’ll have enough movies for an Ayahuasca film festival. First up is Aya Awakenings, an account of one man’s inner and outer journey through the worlds of Ayahuasca.

Rak Razam is an Australian freelance writer and filmmaker who traveled to Peru to work with indigenous shamans and discover what their psychoactive brew could teach him. In addition to writing and producing the film, Razam also narrates, which makes Aya Awakenings a highly personal statement. With the exception of a few brief interviews and some bits of historical and cultural context, it’s Razam’s story and viewpoint all the way. That focus gives the film a powerful sense of honesty and authenticity, but it also raises some questions. Fortunately, since we’re spending 90 minutes in his company, Razam is a likeable guide on a journey that would be, for a lot of us, a pretty harrowing trip.

The voyage begins as Razam arrives in Iquitos, Peru, ground zero of Ayahuasca culture. He attends a conference on shamanism and tours the city, where Ayahuasca appears to be for sale on every street corner.

Once he heads into the jungle, the inner odyssey begins. Razam meets a series of shamans, some Peruvian and some American. His cameras record a number of Ayahuasca ceremonies, most of which occur at night in open air pavilions to the sound of droning jungle insects. We see ritual participants flickering like ghosts in the candlelight, but the real star of the trip sequences comes out of a computer. If you’re a connoisseur of psychedelic graphics, you’ll want to see this movie.

Razam’s narration makes it clear that his encounters with Ayahuasca weren’t always easy. He experiences extreme nausea along with disturbing visions. If there was an Oscar for Extreme Spirituality, Razam would win for his vision of a jaguar spirit emerging from a puddle of his own vomit. Undaunted, he proceeds deeper into the jungle and the depths of his own psyche.

The spiritual journey reaches a climax at the secluded retreat of an American shaman and his houseguest, a bare-chested scientist who studies the effects of psychedelics on the human brain. The scientist wires Razam’s head for EEG readings and the shaman offers him a pipe. Razam smokes powdered DMT—the pure form of the psychoactive ingredient in Ayahuasca—and blasts off into another dimension. His narration hints at the ineffable nature of the experience, but from the outside it looks like he’s babbling and having a seizure.

In the end, Razam finds some enlightenment in shamanic prophecies of immanent global transformation. Prophecies are easy to come by, however. Viewers may wonder if he found something of greater personal worth, and, if so, whether it required so much risk and adversity.

That’s the paradox of Aya Awakenings—it’s thrilling, colorful, and mind-expanding, but it’s also the limited viewpoint of one person who has a thing for extreme experiences. Your mileage may vary. It’s quite possible to have a powerful, transformative experience with psychedelics in a comfortable and familiar setting. Likewise, the contents of Razam’s inner journey are his own. Enlightenment can happen without visions of jaguars or the astral plane or the stately pleasure dome of Kubla Khan.

Ayahuasca is challenging enough by itself. We don’t need Ayahuasca envy.

With those caveats in mind, it’s easy to recommend Aya Awakenings. It’s entertaining, informative, and honest. Just keep in mind that it’s one person’s trip.

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Prescribing Mushrooms for Anxiety

There’s an excellent article in The Atlantic magazine about the use of psilocybin to treat anxiety in cancer patients. “Prescribing Mushrooms for Anxiety” describes the work of Dr. Stephen Ross and his colleagues at New York University.

The data from the study is still being analyzed, but anecdotally Dr. Ross and his team report that the vast majority of their patients have exhibited an immediate and sustained reduction in anxiety. Consistent with similar studies involving psilocybin, approximately three-fourths of the participants rate their experience with the drug as being one of the top five most significant events of their lives.

One of the most dramatic features of psychedelic therapy is that a single dose can have dramatic and long lasting effects. Dr. Ross offered an interesting, non-technical explanation. Perhaps the results last so long because the power of the psychedelic experience makes such a big impression. After all, a single bad experience can produce a lifetime of post-traumatic stress disorder. It makes sense that a positive experience could be as profound and long lasting.

The article has a good summary of the history of psychedelic research and interesting details on the methodology of the NYU study.

Crucially, each participant is shown the two medications they will have access to on demand throughout their trip. One is Valium, used to reduce anxiety, and the other is Zyprexa, an almost instantaneous antidote to the psychedelic. In a testament to the thorough mental preparation the study provides, the medications have never been requested by any of the patients. The psilocybin itself is presented in pill-form inside a ceramic chalice.

The process resembles a ritual as much as a scientific experiment. Perhaps the NYU study gives us a preview of how psychedelic therapy will occur in a decade or so after it becomes legal.


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Radio Literature interview

If you missed my interview on WORT’s Radio Literature program last night, you can stream the audio using the player below. The first part of the show is about the Wisconsin Writers Awards and the 50th anniversary of the Council for Wisconsin Writers. The discussion of psychedelic science begins around the twenty minute mark. This program originally aired on WORT 89.9 FM and streamed at

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“Transcendental Meditation in America” gets the story straight

Fairfield, Iowa, should be on everyone’s bucket list of unique destinations. Is there another American town that contains so many worlds?

In Fairfield, where 22% of the population lives below the poverty line, sprawling mansions loom over scruffy trailer homes. If you visit the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center, you might see an exhibit titled “Healthy Pollinators are Essential for Super Foods and Medicinal Plants” or, on another visit, a mixed martial arts cage match.  In the checkout line at the Hy-Vee Grocery, the person in front of you might be a portly farmer in overalls buying a pack of Slim Jims and the person behind you a woman in a pastel sari with organic clarified butter from the store’s extensive vegetarian section.

The biggest contrast in Fairfield is between the “townies,” the 8,000 or so residents whose parents and grandparents lived there, and the 2,000 people they disparagingly call “roos” or “gurus,” a reference to their leader, the Indian religious icon Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The first of Maharishi’s followers arrived in Fairfield in the 1970s and transformed the town top to bottom. In the process, they changed the American spiritual landscape forever.

TM in America cover

Every step on the long, strange trip is on display in Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa (University of Iowa Press, 2014) by Joseph Weber. A professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska, Weber devoted three years of research and writing to the project. The result is the deepest and broadest portrait so far of an important movement that gets little attention and less understanding.

When Maharishi met the Beatles and intr­oduced them to Transcendental Meditation (TM), yoga and Eastern spirituality were mostly unknown in America. His marketing genius brought TM into the mainstream. By 1974, he was successful enough to purchase the Fairfield campus of the bankrupt Parsons College and transform it into Maharishi International University. Fairfield quickly became the center of the American TM movement and a microcosmic laboratory of spiritual upheaval.

Relations between the two factions of Fairfield residents were shaky from the start. Weber provides revealing portraits of conservative townies and their idealistic counterparts in the TM movement.

He profiles Mayor Ed Malloy, a “roo” who tries to serve the whole town while remaining true to Maharishi’s teachings. He also describes the impact of young entrepreneurs who moved to Fairfield for the blissful atmosphere. They often credit meditation for their success, if not their failures, which are sometimes spectacular.

Weber also talks with people who claim the movement isn’t the peaceful, enlightened community it claims to be. A local farmer describes the trouble he encountered when he tried to start a hog feeding operation close to Maharishi Vedic City, a nearby community of the guru’s followers. The farmer became a national celebrity when Vedic City officials forced him into an expensive legal battle to save his land.

The saddest stories come from people who gave their young lives to Maharishi but were forced to leave the fold. Some disagreed with TM movement policy and dared to speak out in public. Others were excommunicated for showing interest in other forms of spirituality. Is this really how enlightenment works?

In many ways, Fairfield is a model for the changes happening throughout American society as the old ways yield to the new. The drama of changing generations, of red states versus blue states, occurred in miniature in Fairfield before it reached the rest of us. This unusual community is worth watching to see where we all might be headed.

Maharishi died in 2008 and his movement passed out of the public eye a long time ago. Until now, the subject never got the serious scholarly or journalistic attention it deserved. Joseph Weber’s Transcendental Meditation in America will be the standard work on the subject for a long time to come.

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You are the first line of defense against your own experience

On the surface, evolutionary psych looks pretty grim. We pride ourselves on individuality and free will, but many of our choices and behaviors are determined genetically with mathematical precision and little wiggle room. For all our technological progress, human nature hasn’t changed much since it developed hundreds of thousands of years ago in Africa. Our minds pump out beliefs and emotions that were great for coping with saber-tooth cats but now cause us no end of trouble.

Given the fix we’re in, it’s not surprising that some people who study the subject speak of evolution as a kind of evil force. It bears a resemblance to the Christian devil—a deceiver who plants lies in our minds and self-destruction in our hearts. You can also look at it from an Eastern perspective:

maya,  (Sanskrit: “wizardry,” or “illusion”), a fundamental concept in Hindu philosophy… Maya originally denoted the power of wizardry with which a god can make human beings believe in what turns out to be an illusion; by extension it later came to mean the powerful force that creates the cosmic illusion that the phenomenal world is real.  …

— Encyclopedia Britannica

Buddha and the ancient sages weren’t talking about genetics when they described the world as an illusion. The concept of maya fits the modern evolutionary view, though.

What else would you need to create an all-consuming illusion? A million years of natural selection programmed our minds to see cause and effect in random chaos. We detect patterns where there are none. We detect conscious agents where none exist. Our experience seems totally real, of course, but that solid sense of reality is also generated by the mind.

We escaped the predators in Africa and wound up trapped in a state of enchantment, permanent tourists wandering bug-eyed through a Disney World of cognitive errors.

It looks bad. However, if evolutionary science can show us the problem, perhaps it can also help us find a solution.

Once I understood that we’re all stuck with the same lousy programming, I found it liberating. For example, I used to get really angry about the widespread acceptance of unscientific beliefs. You’ve probably seen the data—46% of Americans believe that God created humans less than 10,000 years ago. 41% believe in ESP. 20% believe that vaccines cause autism.

I used to think that people who believe those things must be clueless or duped. Now I think they believe those things because they’re human beings. As I said in a previous essay, we’re all hard-wired for magic.

What’s more, since belief in magic is tied to our survival instincts, it’s almost impossible to resist. Over the years, I’ve tried to offer alternative explanations to people who believe they have psychic powers or miraculous healing abilities. The response is often something like “I know what happened because I saw it myself and you can’t tell me that what I saw is wrong.”

There’s not much you can say to make a person question his or her bedrock experience. It’s screwed in as tight as can be. That doesn’t mean that we should give a pass to foolish ideas, however, especially in dangerous cases like vaccine denial.

Perhaps, when this situation comes up again, I’ll emphasize that I don’t doubt the experience in question. It’s as real as anything to the person who had it. Instead, we should doubt experience itself. It just isn’t reliable. Mine isn’t. Yours isn’t. Evolution is always out to trip us up and we must be vigilant.

You are the first line of defense against your own experience.

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Interview on WORT

WORT logo

I’ll be appearing as a guest on the Radio Literature program on WORT, Madison’s community-sponsored radio station, at 7:30 PM on Thursday, April 24th. Host Marilyn Taylor will interview me about the Council for Wisconsin Writers and the 50th anniversary of the Wisconsin Writers Awards. The discussion may even include a bit of Reason and Magic. Madison listeners can tune in at 89.9 FM. The program will also be available for live streaming at


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We’re all hard-wired for magic

In the beginning, there was a noise in the bush. Our ancestors were sitting around a campfire, huddled in a small group. Half of them thought the noise came from a predator, a huge animal with sharp teeth ready to attack. They leapt up from the fire and ran for their lives.

The other half stuck around to analyze the situation. “Maybe it’s a predator or maybe it’s just the wind in the trees.”

Wind or predator? We don’t know, but we do know that the people who ran away survived. They lived to reproduce and pass their genes on to their children and their children’s children and so on down to us. Even now, we still get nervous when we hear a noise in the dark.

* * *

Perhaps these “just so” stories should come with a label: “Not for literal consumption. For illustrative purposes only.”

The stories may be shaky, but they illustrate a real problem. Why do some human behaviors and psychological traits persist across time and culture even though they seem harmful or pointless? Why do we humans have compassion, self-sacrifice, infanticide, empathy, and common standards of beauty?

Questions like these led to the science of evolutionary psychology. Proponents claim that puzzling traits like self-sacrifice make sense as evolutionary adaptations—they may not do much for contemporary individuals, but they had survival value for our ancient ancestors. They may have outlived their usefulness, but they’re still there in our DNA and in our minds.

Take the campfire story above. The trait in question is known to psychologists as “agent detection,” the ability of humans to detect other beings with a conscious purpose. Our minds detect agents willy-nilly. We do it when we’re in the presence of other people and we do it with inanimate objects.

I’m not the first person to suggest that agent detection is a basic part of religion and magic. I doubt it’s the whole story, but I think that you could build an evolutionary model of magic from a collection of traits. Perhaps these four:

• Detecting agents where there are none
• Detecting patterns where there are none
• Mistaking correlation for causality
• Valuing stories over evidence

These traits may have outlived their evolutionary purpose, but they’re buried deep within us and they’re not going anywhere. They shape our experience and drive our behavior relentlessly whether we like it or not.

The best we can do, I think, is to understand magic for what it is and find a graceful way to live with it. Ironically, skeptics and believers often fail at this task for similar reasons. They take magic at face value. They witness the evolutionary spectacle of faces in the clouds and voices in the wind. One group snickers in contempt and the other asks the wind for advice.

Personally, I’m a rational materialist. I also read Tarot cards. I don’t believe that Tarot cards reveal the future or give me information that I couldn’t obtain through ordinary channels. I do Tarot because I’m a rationalist, because I need help connecting with the powerful, irrational forces flowing deep inside me.

Everybody’s path is different. At some point, though, I think you have to bite the bullet and go native. We’re all hard-wired for magic.

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“Stop Heisenberg Abuse!”

The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine has an excellent article about the misuse of quantum physics in pop culture. If you’re familiar with New Age media like The Secret or What the BLEEP Do We Know, you’ve seen how quantum theory gets twisted out of context to support everything from ESP to cancer therapy.

Author Dale DeBakcsy confronts the problem head-on by examining some of the most common misconceptions about quantum mechanics. For instance, in the pop culture version of quantum theory, your consciousness determines the state of electrons and other particles to create any reality you desire. According to DeBakcsy, it’s just the opposite. Quantum theory allows random selection from a limited number of very precisely defined states, and only on a very tiny scale.

Unfortunately, most physicists look the other way while pop culture celebrities manhandle their discipline. Only a few, like Dale DeBakcsy, bother to put up a fight. As he puts it, “Electrons have done a lot for us, why not return the favor?”

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