Don't worry. The point of this article isn't to blast psychedelic spirituality. The only thing I hope to get across is that psychedelic spirituality is in fact a "thing." To me it's like a musical genre a whole lot of people love. And I wish more people in the psychedelic spiritual community saw it this way. We might be taken more seriously by mainstream liberal thinkers, academics, artists and scientists if we learned how to extract some of the residue of old Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Judaeo-Christian, Pagan, Gnostic, Hindu, and Buddhist cosmologies from our rhetoric. But as long as we've got a transcendent state of consciousness to sell, a world to save, a personal transformation we must go through in order to find wholeness, and a set of scapegoats to blame, we're not selling anything new.
I'm calling this brand of spirituality "psychedelic," but in larger, archetypal terms we are referring to what astrologers (I'm an astrologer) might call "Neptunian" spirituality. Neptune's version of spirituality is about elevating one's consciousness into other worlds, healing or transforming toward one's higher self, and finally dissolving the self entirely into the bliss of God, source energy, oneness (whatever else we might like to call it!).
From Neptune's point of view the "way things are" is unsatisfactory. Neptune feels separate. Neptune longs for the primordial chaos or oneness that came before we emerged from our mother's womb…that deep space of unconscious "at homeness," like the original paradise garden. We must return there at all costs. The point of our existence is to elevate our consciousness until we re-unite with that paradise garden. Some Neptunians believe we'll have to shed our dense, human bodies, and some believe we'll have to burn off our negative karma or be cleansed of our sins. Others believe we will see through the veil of illusion into the real reality that exists right now in front of us, only just cloaked from our view. Neptune longs to go home. Neptune burns with desire for total fusion.
Psychedelic spirituality involves any kind of altered state (ritualistic or not) that somehow puts us in touch with these Neptunian bottom lines. Most often it's the literal psychedelic drugs that take us there. Whether its light weight ganja or double barreled Ayahuasca and Peyote, psychedelic plants tend to expose us to a very particular metaphysical set of assumptions.
For example, during my first experiences with marijuana, over the course of several years during high school and my first college years, I felt as though I could see things the way they were, the way they were in truth, beyond the surface of people's words. I could hear people's thoughts sometimes behind the words they were saying. Simultaneously I began to resent the "phoniness" of the "normal" or "conformist" world around me. I began listening to all kinds of music, much of which was inspired by psychedelics (the Beatles, Bob Marley, the Beach Boys, The Moody Blues, Radiohead, etc). I even went to church several times stoned. I remember thinking, "They've got the right ideas about love and redemption but the wrong spirit. They've lost the emotional connection to these truths." Even something as simple as marijuana was exposing my mind to a "higher" and "realer" reality beyond the veil of "normal" consciousness.
After college I actually attempted to work at a church as a youth minister. I had grown up in the church and figured that it was possible to help kids find an emotional connection to the teachings of Jesus, who I romantically now admired as someone who probably saw the world like I did when I was stoned. The problem was that the work was mundane. It wasn't very exciting. I craved more, and I developed a double life outside of my role as the church's youth pastor. On the side I was experimenting with more drugs, more sex, more rocknroll; the other holy trinity!
Eventually I left my job and then not long afterward I tried magic mushrooms one evening at a party I was hosting. I locked myself into my bedroom and became deeply introspective about every item I owned. The items on my shelves, the cologne bottles, the cds and books, and the articles of clothing in my closet…each one spoke to me as though it was embedded with psychic information. I was seeing the "real truth of me" beyond the normal reasons I might have thought I had for purchasing any of the items I owned or wearing any of the clothing in my closet.
Within a year after taking mushrooms I was off and running and had nearly 30 different more serious, "hard core" psychedelic experiences. I was listening to all the Terence Mckenna lectures I could find on the internet, reading all the Carlos Casteneda I could get my hands on, and studying up on the ancient, tribal and indigenous "shamanic" roots of psychedelic plants. I became literally obsessed with the idea that I was undergoing a major transformation, an enlightenment process that the entire world also desperately needed. I became fixated on the idea that the year 2012, as predicted by Terence Mckenna through his obscure study of the I Ching, held significance for the entire human race.
At this point, while I was in graduate school for creative writing, I decided to create an independent study in travel writing so that I could go to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca. I fancied myself a psychedelic beat poet, and yet I felt very sincerely that my entire exploration was a diligent quest for God. I imagined that somewhere, at some point, all the searching and elevating would lead to a total fusion of myself with God and with everything else in the cosmos.
Eight years and several hundred cups of ayahuasca later I'm still that young guy. I still hear those truths below the surface when I'm eavesdropping in the grocery store or coffee shop. I still imagine the things I've seen and learned from all my psychedelic experiences, to a certain extent, are of a "higher" and, honestly, "better" quality than a lot of other stuff the world has to offer those who seek for "more." I can't apologize for any of this because I truly believe if anyone studies plant psychedelics long enough, with an open heart and mind, they'll probably agree with me. At the same time, I've come to some contradictory insights about the world of psychedelic spirituality that aren't easy to reconcile with the majesty of the visions and "other worldlyness" of psychedelics.
For starters, as far as I can tell from many of these high caliber experiences, the universe, and hence consciousness, is infinite. Paradigms of consciousness are infinite. Some are chaotic, others are highly balanced and synchronized by rhythms, shapes, numbers, and so forth. All information is relative, all absolutely true in its own way, and everything is bafflingly beautiful but also ironically mundane…even the most magical thoughts, visions and truths are just passing symbols in the clouds, a fart in the wind! In other words, however "true" the psychedelic experience is, over time, it's a reality as ordinary as any other, as temporary and frustrating as any other, as chock full of mystery and beauty as anything else, and just as full of "risk" as any other spirituality.
So what are the risks? The largest in my opinion is the risk of religious delusion. It took me several hundred psychedelic experiences to realize that life has a psychedelic factor built into it regardless of whether you take a substance or "have an experience" or not. It took me a while, in other words, to realize that life has something like a "psychedelic" channel.
By its very nature that channel perceives "other" but not necessarily "better" realities. Whereas I used to covet the "spirit world" and feel proud that I knew it was "real," now I see everything as spiritual. I see spirits everywhere. The spirit of atheism. The spirit of nihilism. The spirit of athleticism. The spirit of competition. The spirit of fear. The spirit of joy. The spirit of politeness. The spirit of sincerity. The spirit of good versus evil. The spirit of the quest for enlightenment. The spirit of denial. The spirit of fanaticism.
Over time, what ayahuasca showed me was the face, the beauty, and the horror of each of these spirits, and thousands more like them. Nowadays when I hear someone's "thoughts behind their words," as I did when I was an eighteen year old stoner hoping to revitalize children's connections to Jesus, I often hear a kind of music rather than a lack of "truth." I have an aesthetic experience rather than make a qualitative judgment of some kind. I can honestly say that psychedelics, as amazing as they were, did NOT immediately strip me of my inherited, cultural, age old religious drive to moralize my insights and experiences. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't think moralizing has its place — I see the corporate global reality as a kind of "death star" threat to humanity at the moment, and I feel very morally firm about the way it "could be" or "should be" by contrast. At the same time, I now recognize how futile it can be to "jam on that radio station" for too long. There is something too pressing, too wired, and overheated about limiting reality to the scope of our issues on planet earth at this moment in time.
I've seen enough of the psychedelic spiritual world, writing for Reality Sandwich (a leading consciousness publication) for the past five years, speaking all over the country about ayahuasca on my book tour, directing the ayahuasca monologues in three US cities, and being a psychedelic "educator" to spot the trend.
The reason it's so easy to spot is that the psychedelic jargon sometimes sounds as hollow and predictable as the people at church did when I was a kid just starting to smoke pot. If there was a psychedelic youth group somewhere I'd probably try to join up and infuse "real life" into the psychedelic church right about now. All joking aside, I have had to wonder why it is that even something as powerful and other worldly as psychedelic spirituality can get just as stagnant and boring as anything else. I have no ultimate answers…just thoughts passing in the clouds.
In ancient Egypt it was believed that the soul, through successive lifetimes of evolving, was headed back to the Stars. In Greece toward the real platonic ideas. In the east to Samahdi or Nirvana. To the Christians heaven. To the Persians the light. It's likely that many of them were quaffing mushroom beverages in old temples under the stars. It's likely that many of them were burnt out with the "mundane" world and longed for the "truth beyond the appearances of the world." It's likely that many of these psychedelic religions burnt out because they, like anything else, had faults and led nowhere.
To me, it's not about truth. All that longing is music. To me, it's not about moral righteousness. All that morality is music. To me it's not about love. All that talk about love is like a sweet music. To me it's not about good and evil. To me all that good and evil are two drums in the night. To me the cosmos is infinite. To me, life has no opposite. To me, there is no beginning or ending because beginnings and endings are infinite. And I don't have to sell these things, get passionate about them, because if I stop and listen I can hear them playing through the days, like music. It's not that music is better than any of these things, it's that music is musical.
Whether we believe in spirits or not, life shows them to us eventually, psychedelic or not. Whether we believe in God or not, life shows us God, psychedelic or not. Whether we believe in nothingness, no truth, no significance, no god, psychedelic or not, life will show these things to us. Through the act of living, infinitely, we see and feel everything eventually.
I'm aware of the risks of psychedelic spirituality; they are the same risks of most religions. What would happen if the moralizing of psychedelic revelations decreased and more artwork was made? What would happen if we talked more of the music of Neptune and less of Neptune's "ultimate reality?" Could it be that by objectifying our own passion for psychedelic spirituality, just a little more than we might like, we'll be hearing it clearly for the first time? These thoughts…they're my music. If there's one thing psychedelics have taught me….
Image by Sodanie Chea, courtesy of Creative Commons license.