“Why haven’t we seen a picture of the whole mind yet?”:  Positive Possibilities for Psychedelics

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Only now, in the preliminary phase of liberalization, are we starting to have available evidence-based science about psychedelics. It would be unduly optimistic to expect evidence-based legislation to become widespread any time soon, but more countries can be expected to relax some of their restrictions as the benefits for doing so become more widely apparent.

Entheogenic use

While legal restrictions put an end to conventional research, it did little to prevent the continued proliferation of psychedelics throughout the culture. It is difficult to say which of many cultural areas have been most affected by psychedelics. For example, Jack Kornfield, a noted Buddhist teacher says, “It is true for the majority of American Buddhist teachers that they have had experience with psychedelics either right after they started their spiritual practice or prior to it.”  This use, in fact, is not contrary to Buddhist vows.  My own experience is that teachers in many other spiritual and psychophysical disciplines also began their spiritual journeys after important psychedelic experiences.

A group at John Hopkins University is engaged in a series of studies to determine if psychedelics taken in a safe and sacred situation leads most subjects to spiritual experiences. Hardly surprising, the answer was yes. More important than the research itself was that it crossed a major barrier: the government allowed, for the first time, a research study that asked spiritual questions, not only medical ones. Also striking was the amount of media attention given to the findings. More than three hundred publications took note of the results after its publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal. Surprisingly, a positive account appeared in the Wall Street Journal. More instructive, in looking at trends, was a short article in the Scottish Sporting News. The headline read, “Shrooms get you high.” The editors assumed that their readers knew the slang term for psychedelic mushrooms and that it would not require a lengthy article to tell its readers that science had discovered what they already knew.

Equally important, a host of web sites now meet the need to have easy access to basic information for safe sane psychedelic use. The foremost site is Erowid, which has reports and information, technical articles, interactive molecular dictionaries, visionary art, descriptions of dangers and contra-indications as well as thousands of personal reports on dozens of substances. The site averages 50,000 visits a day, a figure that has grown every year since its inception. Browsing through the site makes it clear that while forty years of inadequate information may have worked against wise use, a widespread underground is thriving unimpeded.

Another phenomenon is the growing popularity of ayahuasca. While other psychedelics are often used recreationally, ayahuasca is almost always taken under the direction of experienced guides or shamans. In the sixties, a rite of passage was to visit India, study with a guru and practice austerities in an ashram. Today’s psycho-explorers head for the rainforest to work with traditional healers and traditional plant medicines, of which ayahuasca is the best known. While the trips to India were and are mostly about personal self-realization, the intention of those seeking these South American immersions almost always include both personal healing and a strong interest in repairing the rift between humanity and the other biological kingdoms.

Two debates continue, holdovers from the wide-eyed sixties. One is about the validity of experiences induced by plants or chemicals as compared with experiences achieved by meditation, prayer, movement, fasting, etc. The argument smolders and flares up now and then but will never be settled. The other debate—between those who scorn synthetic psychedelics and those who don’t—goes on as well with no hope of either side convincing the other. Gordon Wasson, who discovered psychedelic mushroom use in the New World, was asked the difference between the mushrooms and psilocybin, the latter manufactured by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. He said, “ I did not discover any difference. I think the people who discover a difference are looking for a difference and imagine they see a difference.”  What is important is the effect taking the substance has on one’s life and well-being, not the subtleties of this or that product.

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