NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

Building a Modern Eleusis

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The following is excerpted from newly published The New Psychedelic Revolution: The Genesis of a Visionary Age by James Oroc, published by Inner Traditions. 

The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be thinking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer, but they think they have. So they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants and mystery bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

Ken Kesey, The Art of Fiction interview,
Paris Review, 1994

Late night, at an annual psychedelic gathering during Art Basel in Miami a few years ago, an intelligent dreadlocked young man, who seemed genuinely interested in my work and who, I later found out, is the heir to a considerable fortune, asked me why I spent so much of my time promoting psychedelic culture. As I struggled to connect the dots between my ideas about the ego, technology, and the impending environmental catastrophe, with the absolute necessity of the reintroduction of the transpersonal experience into the Western psyche, he stopped me and told me that he understood, and the way he neatly summarized it was:

“The psychedelic perspective is the perspective required for humanity to adapt and survive.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, and along with the birth of the environmental movement, the millions of people worldwide who have adopted healthier lifestyles and attitudes because of their psychedelic use are a testimony to the possibilities of that approach. Perhaps the hallmark of modern psychedelic culture is that if you happen to experience one its many rotating nexuses (such as the annual Alex Grey Bicycle Day event in San Francisco, a transformational festival in North America, a psytrance festival like BOOM! in Europe or Australia, or a major entheogenic conference like MAPS or the World Psychedelic Forum), you cannot help being impressed by the beauty and the complexity of the many-layered vision presented there. A vision that proclaims the possibility of what the world might be like if we simply allowed responsible psychedelic culture to flourish.

Having often been a working part of psychedelic culture over the last decade, and having had long conversations with many psychedelic artist-activists about what it is we are collectively trying to achieve (sometimes despairing that the message is being lost in all the beautiful pictures and the pretty lights), I have concluded that this Second Psychedelic Revolution is instinctively creating modern mystery schools, and that these movable temples of music, dance, and art are the closest things our society has to true portals to transcendence. (Joseph Campbell often stated that two of the oldest and most reliable technologies of transcendence are music and dancing.)

“Visionary art could be the new religion,” Alex Grey is fond of saying, “with psychedelics recognized again as sacraments.” He and I share the belief that the psychedelic-mystical response to art, music, and dance is one of the few effective methodologies that can cut through the programming of modern existence and help to alleviate our shared existential suffering; a viable technology capable of freeing us from the paralysis of the impending planetary ecocide, through a transformative connection with the universal transpersonal experience.

This is why psychedelic culture often showcases itself these days as rather grandly titled “transformational festivals.” These are based on the genuine belief that tremendous personal growth and transformation can occur from experiencing the transpersonal within the multilayered vision that the neo-tribal community that has evolved around these festivals over the past two decades collectively creates; and that if enough people experience this sense of connection there will be enough of us to make a change, to become, as I wrote in Tryptamine Palace, “the sharpened point of the spearhead of humanity.”

If there is a substantial difference between the outsider attitude of the psychedelic politics of Timothy Leary’s era—immortalized by his unfortunate advice to “Turn on, tune in, and drop out’” in 1966—and the pragmatic politics on display at tech-savvy festivals like BOOM!, Lightning in a Bottle, and Symbiosis, or within a professional psychedelic organization like MAPS or the Heffter Research Institute, it is in the recognition that slow change is more likely to occur within the system than as any kind of overwhelming revolution. While a transpersonal experience with psychedelics can motivate an individual to work toward real personal and social change—a psychedelic form of liberation theology—the mere act of taking the psychedelic itself generally changes nothing.

The psychedelic community is intensely aware of the fragility of this moment in history. Virtually every transformational festival has lecture series and workshops on the environmental crisis, alternative energy, and permaculture, while the entire 2012 phenomenon was, in my opinion, a misguided identification of the stark reality of the global crisis that we will most likely soon face.

One of the things I find most encouraging about the psychedelic community is how many really smart people I meet at these events. They are often the densest concentration of brilliant minds I have experienced outside of a university, and generally the most tolerant and open-minded. A transpersonal experience challenges virtually every foundation stone of our soulless Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm, and can stimulate an aroused intellect to new heights of understanding, while opening up the heart to the tolerance and acceptance that comes from knowing that all things are connected, that we are all part of the One. From more than sixty years of experience, we now know that responsible psychedelic use actually builds community. Any community with a high number of individuals who are familiar with transpersonal spaces—be they from yoga, meditation, prayer, or psychedelics—is likely to be both more conscious and more inviting.

Contemporary psychedelic culture is continuing proof of this, from the original touring family that grew up around the Grateful Dead and is now heading into its fifth decade, to the significant visionary community that has built up around the annual Burning Man ­gathering—a remarkable experiment in art and group consciousness that is, for that week, the most open and tolerant place on Earth—and the West Coast transformational festivals that it has helped to inspire. In Europe, the bi-annual, openly psychedelic BOOM! festival held in Portugal is the major pilgrimage of the global psytrance tribe, and the two different communities surrounding these two different cultures (Burning Man and BOOM!) are increasingly becoming united (through art and music) into a single global tribe. The Oregon Solar Eclipse Gathering in 2017, which attracted more than fifty thousand people from around the world, was the first major collaborative transformational festival involving major festivals from the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, Australia, and Europe in the United States.

For most people, the more of these festivals you attend, the more this sense of community grows, along with the ability and desire to collaborate with like-minded groups and individuals. The community involved in the production of these festivals worldwide—producers and artists, stage builders and designers, structural engineers, sound engineers, lighting and video engineers, wood and welding wizards, as well as the traveling circus of musicians, DJs, producers and performers, and another whole community of vendors, many of whom now travel with their young children—has grown so large in the past fifteen years that there is now a significant move away from the festival model.

Many of the people involved are beginning to feel that these events are becoming too large and wasteful, in view of the amount of time and resources that are spent constructing these elaborate psychedelic environments, only to have to break them down again days later. (Burning Man is the most obvious example of an unsustainable festival, although to be fair, it has never had any interest in being otherwise.) The natural progression is toward the purchase of permanent sites for these events (such as BOOM! in Portugal) that can develop as prototypes for sustainable villages for a habitually transient community. In an increasingly disenfranchised world, the building of real community offers a powerful draw, and the high concentration of radical freethinkers in the psychedelic community—many who are pioneers in their own fields—may yet have unforeseen advantages in the tumultuous years ahead. The psychedelic community worldwide, for example, includes thousands of sophisticated marijuana growers who are rediscovering traditional ­permaculture farming techniques that have been lost to big agriculture. No other community that I know of has such a high concentration of skilled farmers. They may yet, out of necessity, find themselves growing more than gourmet cannabis.

Psychedelic philosophy is a neon rabbit hole that fractals in every direction after that first time you dissolve in that tunnel of light. I have spent much of the last decade researching many facets of this rainbow-­colored gem, often describing my entheogenic epiphany on 5-methoxy-DMT and the subsequent six-year journey to the publication of Tryptamine Palace as the greatest intellectual adventure of my life. It is no wonder that enquiring minds are drawn toward this transpersonal mystery, for psychedelics, and our unlikely relationship with them, is one of the most fascinating subjects for pure thought even without taking them!

The very fact that tryptamine psychedelics even work at all—that there are specialized molecules in trees, plants, and fungi whose shape is similar enough to that of serotonin (a brain hormone) that the sophisticated defense system of the human brain (the blood-brain barrier) is tricked into accepting them, and that these molecules
(DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, LSD, and psilocybin) then fit into the same very specialized locks in the brain and dramatically modify human consciousness to a state outside of consensual reality—this is in itself a mystery that defies the human imagination and has kept me awake in wonder many a night.

What possible purpose could this relationship serve in nature if life and consciousness are nothing but the accidental by-products of a universe full of mindless matter aimlessly bouncing around, as Newtonian scientists would have us believe? Even accepting the possibility that consciousness is merely some highly specialized cosmic accident, how did our ancestors figure out this strange relationship between our inner world and the plant kingdom? What effect did this discovery have on those primitive societies? And this then begs the questions: how long were psychedelics revered before our own culture did its best to extinguish them, and why now, on the verge of planetary destruction, have they so dramatically reappeared in the Western perspective?

This mystery only deepened with the discovery of endogenous DMT and 5-MeO-DMT in human blood and cerebrospinal fluid in the early 1970s. This means that the two most powerful entheogens we know of are being produced somewhere naturally within the human body. While this discovery opens up a whole universe of new speculations and possibilities, what I find most fascinating is the ­phenomenological manner in which these two compounds transform our consciousness.

Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, opens up the mind’s eye to the visionary experience—anything that can be seen or imagined can vividly exist in the DMT realm, which is why it is so revered by visual artists. Nick Sand, the man who invented Orange Sunshine LSD, and also the person who figured out that you could freebase DMT, described it to me as “The Fullness,” while in my lectures I correlate DMT to the sixth chakra in the kundalini system. At this level, while you can experience the existence of God in all its infinite myriad forms, there is still a separation between the subject and object, between you and the face of the divine. DMT is thus the endogenous source of the vast and rich realm of our archetypical mythology.

On the other hand, the other known endogenous entheogen, 5-methoxy-DMT, Nick Sand described to me as “The Void,” noting that the phenomenological experience of this closely related compound is very different from that of DMT. This singularly powerful compound I correlate to the seventh chakra of the kundalini system—the crown chakra—the source of that indescribable event where all boundaries dissolve, and you and God become One. The seventh chakra reveals an interconnected dimension beyond vision, thoughts, time, space—the transpersoanal experience defined by Abraham Maslow and Stanislav Grof—which 5-MeO-DMT accesses through an ego death so dramatic and instantaneous that it is impossible to find the vocabulary with which to relate the experience* with the sliver of consciousness that returns, the classical mystic’s dilemma. (The Indian sage Ramakrishna would relate the passage of the kundalini through his chakras till the seventh chakra, at which point he would collapse wordlessly into samadhi. Upon his return he explained: “But who should speak? The very distinction between ‘I’ and ‘thou’ vanishes.”) With its virtually guaranteed experience of ego death, 5-MeO-DMT is the endogenous origin of the singular mystical experience.

*Although I have tried in Tryptamine Palace!
There are rare cases when individuals won’t or can’t let go on 5-MeO-DMT, and their ego refuses to dissolve into the Void. At this point they are invariably dragged through hell instead, and end up having traumatic and potentially damaging experiences.

Virtually all religions on this planet have been born from a tension between the mystical and the mythological—which is to say that localized mythologies and religious systems have all arisen around the same common ineffable spark known to mystics throughout history. Therefore you would think it might be of great interest to contemporary society that we have recently discovered that the two compounds most likely to induce these experiences are also being produced naturally within our own brains.

The discovery of endorphins—endogenous opiates—and the opiate receptor is now considered one of the major biological discoveries of the last fifty years; its discoverers received a Nobel Prize. So you would imagine that the much more difficult discovery of endogenous psychedelics would be similarly celebrated. But, ironically, shortly before DMT was discovered to be naturally produced within the human body in 1972, it was made illegal (along with LSD and all other known psychedelics) in the United States by the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and all research on psychedelics effectively stopped. In 1973, a new federal agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), was formed to fight the “rising drug problem,” and organizations like the hashish-and-LSD ring known as the Brotherhood of Love—who reputedly kept the price of LSD low for years because they believed it was sacramental and could bring about social change—were dismantled.

The state of California made LSD illegal on October 6, 1966, meaning that our governments have now fought fifty years of a drug war against their own population over a class of nontoxic and ­nonaddictive drugs that have only grown in popularity—a failed Prohibition that is, thanks to the United Nations, enforced on a global scale. Whether or not the rapid reinvention of global culture results in a sustainable future for humanity or in a forced adaptation for survival among the ruins of the first man-made planetary collapse, I believe that the transpersonal psychedelic experience grants us an invaluable perspective from which to consider our species’ relationship with the rest of the web of life—and ultimately, with Source, the Universal Consciousness. The continued investigation into the entheomystical experience is both a basic human right and an inevitable result of our curiosity, and the firsthand experience—the ­connectivity of all things to Source—remains both the greatest of human mysteries and potentially the greatest gift of all.


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Top Image: Amanda Sage

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