Westward, ho!

To make a long story short, my search for a shaman in Peru led me to members of the Santo Daime church in Oregon, the group mentioned in the previous post. They welcome visitors, although there’s a fairly rigorous screening process.

I received a newcomer packet via email with information about the church and the Daime tea (aka Ayahuasca). One section contained a long list of foods, beverages, and medications to avoid before participating in a Daime ceremony.

It’s extremely important to avoid drinking the Daime tea if you’re also taking antidepressants such as Zoloft or Paxil. They can interact with one of the chemical ingredients in the tea–monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI)–with potentially serious results. The list of foods includes things like chocolate, red wine, and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, all of which interact with MAOI.

I filled out the application form, which included an extensive medical history, and mailed it in. The next step was a personal interview. Usually, the interview is face to face, but since the church is on the west coast and I’m in Wisconsin, we did it by phone. The interviewer was very friendly and helpful.

I had a number of questions about the ritual. All Santo Daime services involve the consumption of the sacramental tea. There’s an extensive liturgy of hymns and prayers in Portuguese, the language spoken by the founder of the church, Mestre Irineu. Some services emphasize quiet meditation while others involve ritual dancing that can go on for ten or more hours.

There’s a dress code. I drove to the Boston Store and purchased a pure white cotton shirt and matching pants. My interviewer suggested that I also bring a blanket, a pillow, some fruit or other light snacks, and a water bottle. It sounds a bit like a slumber party.

My flight for Ashland, Oregon, leaves this afternoon. Wish me luck.

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Santo Daime

Ayahuasca is an herbal beverage made from plants native to the Amazon region, one of which contains the psychoactive chemical DMT (dimethyltriptamine). DMT belongs to the big family of hallucinogenic drugs that includes LSD and psilocybin.

Amazonian shamans have used Ayahuasca in traditional rituals that go back into the mists of time. Ayahuasca is legal in Peru where shamanism is a respected institution. It’s illegal pretty much everywhere else in the world, as is DMT itself in any form.

There’s a problem with blanket prohibition, however. If shamanism is a religious practice, shouldn’t the use of Ayahuasca be protected by laws that guarantee the freedom of religion? That’s the argument used by the plaintiffs in Church of the Holy Light of the Queen v. Mukasey, the 2009 trial that pitted the U.S. federal government against a small religious group based in Ashland, Oregon.

The Oregon church is a branch of Santo Daime, a new religious movement that started in Brazil in the 1930s. It’s an eclectic religion that combines elements of Roman Catholic Christianity, African tradition, and Amazonian shamanism. The Portuguese word Daime (“give me”) is the name of the sacrament used in church ceremonies—the herbal beverage known elsewhere as Ayahuasca.

The government claimed that its prohibition of Daime protected the health of church members and prevented it from being used for recreation outside the church. The judge disagreed. As of this writing, members of the Church of the Holy Light of the Queen in Ashland are free to consume their sacrament.

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Psychedelic choices

There aren’t many options for people who wish to use psychedelics legally.

You can apply to be a subject in a research study. A few universities conduct research on the use of psychedelics for treating medical issues. There are only a handful of openings, however, and those are usually for people with specific conditions such as cancer or PTSD.

If you’re interested in Ayahuasca—the plant-based psychedelic used by traditional shamans in the Amazon region—you can go to Peru or Brazil where it’s legal. Many Peruvian shamans and spiritual groups offer Ayahuasca retreats to visitors from around the world.

In fact, there are so many ways to take Ayahuasca in Peru that the hard part may be making up your mind. Do you want a comfortable bed or a sleeping blanket with mosquito netting? A traditional shaman who requires a month of celibacy or a street vendor who offers you a bottle of brown liquid as you get off the bus?

When I decided to go to Peru, I tried my usual strategy of online shopping, browsing for Ayahuasca retreats like a tourist looking for a congenial cruise ship. Indeed, some of the web sites I found resembled Club Med or Carnival Lines with lush photos of rainbows, bonfires, and satisfied, tattooed customers.

Once I plunged into the discussion forums, however, the terrain got murky. I waded through controversies over the authenticity of shamans and the ingredients in their Ayahuasca. I heard stories of gringo seekers looking for enlightenment and finding sexual abuse or disappearing into the jungle.

With enough time and research, I probably could have found a reputable shaman and a place to stay without too many hardships for a soft American. That level of comfort would have been fine for ordinary tourism, but psychedelic drugs are unpredictable. They grab the smallest things in your mind or your environment and amplify them until they take up your entire consciousness. Any worries in the back of your head, any funny noises out in the jungle darkness, can blossom into full-blown paranoia and a bad trip.

For that reason, I wanted a safe and familiar setting for my first psychedelic experience in 40 years.

I lucked out. My search for a safe place in the Amazon jungle wound up much closer to home. See the next post for more.

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Why would anyone take that stuff?

If you’re going into surgery, nobody asks why you want an anesthetic. If you’ve got a bleeding wound, nobody asks why you want a bandage. Yet the question comes up all the time with psychedelics.

There’s an easy answer if you suffer from PTSD or addiction or depression: you’re desperate. You’re trapped in a box of hell and psychedelic therapy offers hope.

Some of us, however, are free of serious medical conditions but still interested in psychedelics. We seek insight, growth, liberation. These spiritual goals may seem vague or frivolous compared to the deadly serious needs of the clinically ill. Perhaps these goals are optional, but does that mean that they aren’t important?

Philosophers and spiritual leaders from the Buddha on down tell us that everyday life is like a disease or a prison sentence. They say that the first step in solving the problem is to realize the seriousness of the condition. Psychedelic drugs are very good at that.

Perhaps the walking well need psychedelics just as much as the critically ill.

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Psychedelic science 101

If you’d like to learn more about the current state of psychedelic research, there’s a good article in the New York Times magazine. I also recommend two interviews from the London Real program.

This show is an interview with Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Rick is a Harvard-trained lawyer who has devoted his career to furthering psychedelic science and medicine. His organization sponsors a lot of the important research studies with MDMA and other psychedelics. He’s a very engaging speaker with a ton of good stories.

This show features Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris of the Department of Medicine at Imperial College, London. He’s a scientist doing fundamental research on the effects of psychedelics on the nervous system. In this interview, he gives an excellent and clear-headed overview of the field.

As you learn about this topic, you’ll discover that there’s a ton of material out there, some good and some questionable. When in doubt, please remember the best advice my mom ever gave me:

Keep your crap detector turned up on high.

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Rediscovering psychedelics

Even the word “psychedelic” went to jail. During rare public appearances, the letters themselves are candy-colored and swirly, forced into orange jumpsuits like suspects in a mug shot. The word often appears alongside the usual suspects—pictures of daisies and toadstools and a cartoon hippie wearing love beads with bubbles popping over his head to indicate that he’s stoned and, therefore, a joke.

We recognize the symbolism and gloat on cue, proving once again that history is written by the winners. Richard Nixon, in this case.

After 50 years of living inside Nixon’s moral universe—that is, the “war on drugs”—most of us accept his story about LSD and other psychedelics. They’re an indulgence, a groovy escape for irresponsible people, a way-out path to destruction. Case closed.

But stop a second to consider these facts:

  • According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Most users of LSD voluntarily decrease or stop its use over time. LSD is not considered an addictive drug since it does not produce compulsive drug-seeking behavior.”
  • Studies at major research institutions including Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and NYU found positive results using psychedelics for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, addiction, and end-of-life anxiety in terminal cancer patients.
  • One study of the psychedelic MDMA found significant advantages over antidepressants for treating patients with PTSD. Two months after receiving MDMA, 80% of the subjects had improved to the point where they would no longer be diagnosed with the disease.

If this were any other drug, every grad student in the country would be lining up for the research grants pouring out of the pharmaceutical industry. Psychedelics, however, remain where Nixon put them fifty years ago. Possession is a federal crime that carries a one year prison sentence.

Perhaps this is one of those cases, like slavery and segregation, where the extreme awfulness of the situation presents an opportunity for change. If we pull back the curtain on the drug war just a bit, the whole mess comes tumbling out. We can understand the waste and injustice and our own role in creating them.

When the veil falls away, we see in a flash that we had it all backwards. Who would have thought that psychedelic drugs—universally condemned and ridiculed—could offer hope and great promise?

Oddly enough, this process of realization, this moment of dissolving illusions, mirrors the experience of the drugs themselves.

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Resuming the journey

After a few bottles of champagne, the office Christmas party got pretty loud. The room was hot and the conversations rose and blurred together into a random hum. I was ready to make a graceful exit when a single word cut through the noise.

“Entheogens.”

I traced the sound to the most interesting guy in the room. He was perched on a stool wearing a big grin, illuminated by champagne, and surrounded by cheerful Christmas faces. I joined them and listened.

“There’s new medical research on psychedelic drugs,” he said. “Magic mushrooms. Ecstasy. There’s a study where they gave psilocybin to people who were dying of cancer. They found out that psychedelics help people deal with the fear of death.”

The realization came as quickly and clearly as the word itself.

“Of course!” I thought. It’s all there in the name. Entheogens are drugs that produce an intense spiritual experience.

My own time with LSD, psilocybin, and other entheogens happened 40 years ago, but I remember what it felt like as clear as day. The overwhelming awe. The joyful revelations. The sense of perspective, of understanding that your life is a very small part of the universe. Of course that’s going to have an effect on people who are afraid of dying.

The morning after the Christmas party, I woke up, ate breakfast, sat down at the computer, and typed “entheogens” into Google.

Holy cow. I thought that scientific research on psychedelic drugs came to a halt in the 1960s with the government crackdown. While I wasn’t paying attention, however, psychedelics came back and opened a huge frontier in neuroscience and medicine. The new psychedelic science offers insights into consciousness and help for patients suffering from grave medical conditions, especially those who don’t respond to conventional therapy.

I had no idea. After a few hours on Google, though, I had a very uncomfortable twinge in my gut that I knew could only be satisfied by further research.

That was a year ago. Since then, I’ve talked with psychologists, psychonauts, neurochemists, shamans in business suits, and little old ladies who love their LSD. They kept the faith during the dark years of the drug wars and are, at last, getting serious attention from mainstream science and medicine.

I’m pleased that they’ve confirmed my intuition. “Of course” psychedelic drugs can help people who are seriously ill. How does that work, though? I can understand how a drug that absorbs stomach acids could help with indigestion, but how does a drug that blows your mind help with post-traumatic stress disorder?

There are lots of other questions, but I figured that this was a good time to pause and check in with you all. As I continue my research, I’ll let you know about the answers I discover. I’m also planning to share the delights and oddities that a person encounters every day on the psychedelic path.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

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Skeptics and believers

God may or may not exist, but the experience of God is undoubtedly real. The human nervous system can produce all the necessary mystical effects—the rays of light, the shining face, the booming voice. At the same time, the brain can generate a sense of reality and total certainty, like pounding drums accompanying a guitar.

The result is a complete and compelling experience of the divine. Nothing supernatural required. No questions asked.

What’s more, a mystical experience can produce real-world results. Suppose that a wicked person hears the voice of God say “Clean up your act!” The wicked person might find hope and be less fearful and more loving. Does it matter whether God’s voice originated in heaven or in the electrical activity of the brain? What more would a real God have to do?

Since we all have the same nervous system, anybody can have this kind of spiritual experience—atheist, believer, whatever. There’s no reason why an atheist couldn’t have a lifelong relationship with the divine and go on being an atheist.

In fact, skeptics might be better equipped for mysticism. They can’t deny the reality of the experience, but they’re always on the lookout for bullshit. The voice of God may say “You are loved” in one breath and “Beware of men who wear red pants” with the next. Regardless of what God says, your brain cranks up the pounding drums of reality and certainty. Without skepticism, you’re screwed.

Fortunately, we’re all natural skeptics just like we’re all natural mystics. Perhaps both are necessary for a full human life.

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