A THORNY PROB­LEM

Road builders ver­sus Ire­land’s fairy trees

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is main­tain­ing the “sa­cred” char­ac­ter of the na­ture/hu­man sym­bio­sis and all the eco­log­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity that this en­tails.

The last strain of psy­che­delic con­scious­ness I en­coun­tered over the three-day event doesn’t give a hoot about be­ing safe or sa­cred but wants to keep psychedelics strange. Be­fore the 1960s, many writ­ers and artists found in drug ex­pe­ri­ences in­spi­ra­tion and ac­cess to un­usual states of con­scious­ness, which were valu­able in them­selves, and not for any util­i­tar­ian pur­pose, whether per­sonal or plan­e­tary. Th­ese in­trepid self-ex­per­i­menters just took the stuff and let rip. In a mi­lieu that in­creas­ingly favours find­ing so­cially ac­cept­able rea­sons for tak­ing drugs, th­ese few rebels are the odd men out.

Strangely, for a con­fer­ence aware of the sum­mer of ’67, there were few signs of it. Sure, at the Psy­che­delic Mu­seum you could take a quick trip – no pun in­tended – down mem­ory lane, past copies of Gan­dalf’s

Gar­den, pa­per­backs about LSD, al­bum cov­ers from the Doors and Hen­drix, a Bur­roughs/Gysin Dream Ma­chine, and even a drum skin sup­pos­edly owned by Pink Floyd’s Syd Bar­ret, al­though I was later told it was ac­tu­ally Brian Bar­ritt’s – which, for con­nois­seurs, would be even more in­ter­est­ing (Bar­ritt was a mate of the most fa­mous psy­che­delic revo­lu­tion­ary, Ti­mothy Leary, who was con­spic­u­ously ab­sent from the oc­ca­sion). The lec­ture halls were named af­ter fa­mous fig­ures: the Sabina stage, named af­ter the cu­ran­dera Maria Sabina, the Hof­mann Hall, named af­ter the dis­cov­erer of LSD, Al­bert Hof­mann, and the Os­mond Au­di­to­rium, named af­ter Humphrey Os­mond. But there was no Leary Lounge, Hux­ley Han­gout, or McKenna Mez­za­nine, al­though Ter­rance’s brother Den­nis was on hand to try to ex­plain once again ex­actly what hap­pened dur­ing their no­to­ri­ous hal­lu­cino­genic-led “ex­per­i­ment at La Chor­rera”. He left it hang­ing, but char­ac­terised it as an “alien ab­duc­tion episode with a psy­che­delic twist”.

Per­haps the or­gan­is­ers wanted to avoid stereo­types and so for­got the usual sus­pects. Or per­haps there’s some em­bar­rass­ment about Leary, who more than any­one set clin­i­cal re­search into psychedelics back by decades, and McKenna, whose ca­reer as a psy­che­delic guru has come un­der re­cent scru­tiny. Ei­ther way, there were no lec­tures on Leary and even Hux­ley was rel­e­gated to the back­wa­ters of aca­demic lit­er­ary pre­sen­ta­tions, one of which, by Luke Dod­son, I took in and found fas­ci­nat­ing.

What I did see was enough to sug­gest that the “safe” camp was steadily gain­ing ground and that a kind of Hux­leyan brave new world, in which psy­chophar­ma­col­ogy will play an in­creas­ingly de­ter­min­ing role, seemed to be on the cards. Rick Doblin, a mover and shaker for MAPS, charted the steady progress be­ing made in this di­rec­tion, and a va­ri­ety of other psy­chi­a­trists, psy­chol­o­gists, and psy­chother­a­pists echoed him with re­ports on their own suc­cess in us­ing psychedelics in a therapeutic con­text. This could be very spe­cific. Friederike Meckel-Fis­cher, a Ger­man psy­chother­a­pist, high­lighted at what points a ther­a­pist should in­ter­vene in a trip in or­der to work on over­com­ing a va­ri­ety of trauma. While this may be counted as a vic­tory in the strug­gle to make psychedelics so­cially ac­cept­able, not to men­tion le­gal, peo­ple in the “sa­cred” camp have sec­ond thoughts about plants, herbs, and their re­lated en­theogenic – “god in­duc­ing” – sub­stances be­ing put un­der a too tightly reg­u­lated lock and key.

Some, like the Seed Sis­tas, reg­u­lars at fes­ti­vals across the land, are for turn­ing away from main­stream ac­cep­tance and find­ing our medicines on our own. Karen Law­ton and Fiona Heck­les are hedge-witches ded­i­cated to ex­plor­ing the heal­ing po­ten­tials of plants, mostly those avail­able in one’s own back­yard. Rather than have the medic­i­nal virtues of our rooted friends given back to us via the BMA, they share their knowl­edge and ex­per­tise about a va­ri­ety of lo­cal growths, like hen­bane and man­dragora, so that we can do it our­selves. One of their most pop­u­lar con­coc­tions is their psy­che­delic sex-lu­bri­cant, which prom­ises two ec­stasies for the price of one. I didn’t have a chance to sam­ple this, but a pey­ote balm ap­plied ju­di­ciously seemed to have a calm­ing ef­fect. I should men­tion that the only sub­stance I did in­gest, dur­ing Danny Nemu’s talk about drugs in the Bi­ble, was a pearl of frank­in­cense, which did lit­tle but get stuck to my teeth.

The mag­i­cal as­pects of psychedelics brought a slight oc­cult flavour to the mix. Chaos ma­gi­cian Ju­lianVayne il­lus­trated the dif­fer­ence be­tween a psy­che­delic “ses­sion”, which sounds aw­fully

clin­i­cal, and a psy­che­delic “cer­e­mony”, which sounds a lot more fun. Fun­da­men­tally it’s all a mat­ter of at­ti­tude, but hav­ing the right one can in­fuse even the sim­ple plea­sure of a joint with sa­cred sig­nif­i­cance. Pa­trick Everitt lec­tured on the place of psychedelics in the work of Aleis­ter Crow­ley, but stopped short of per­pet­u­at­ing the myth that Crow­ley in­tro­duced pey­ote to Europe. That story was mas­ter­fully re­lated by Mike Jay, his­to­rian of drug use, au­thor of nu­mer­ous books, and cu­ra­tor of drug and medicine re­lated ex­hi­bi­tions for the Well­come Col­lec­tion. Jay re­lated the fas­ci­nat­ing story of a decade of re­search into pey­ote in­volv­ing sem­i­nal fig­ures like Wil­liam James, Have­lock El­lis, and other self-ex­per­i­menters, all of whom pre­ceded Crow­ley’s use of it, and who paved the way for the mesca­line that opened Al­dous Hux­ley’s doors of per­cep­tion. Along the way, the po­tent cac­tus – the first psy­che­delic scru­ti­nised by Western sci­ence, but now for­got­ten – in­tro­duced po­ets, writ­ers, and artists to its pe­cu­liar vi­sions. If I have one sug­ges­tion for fu­ture con­fer­ences, it’s that his­tor­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tions like Jay’s play a larger role in the pro­ceed­ings.

Ru­pert Shel­drake, the em­i­nent bi­ol­o­gist, talked about how the psy­che­delic ex­pe­ri­ence can be un­der­stood in terms of his the­ory of mor­phic res­o­nance (see FT286:38-40, 353:52-53). This posits a kind of mem­ory-field, not trans­mit­ted by the genes, which our own ex­pe­ri­ences can add to. So for Shel­drake, the kinds of psy­che­delic ex­pe­ri­ences had by the pioneers of the 1950s and 60s still im­pact on those of to­day – and th­ese in turn af­fect those that will come in the fu­ture. So it is im­por­tant how you trip to­day – if you do at all – be­cause it will, ac­cord­ing to Shel­drake, af­fect how some­one else does to­mor­row.

Not all al­tered states dis­cussed were drug-in­duced. Jennifer Dumpert gave a lively talk on her ex­pe­ri­ences with hyp­n­a­gogia, that strange state of con­scious­ness in be­tween sleep­ing and wak­ing and its re­lated phe­nom­ena of “lim­i­nal dreams.” While we can slip into a lim­i­nal dream prac­ti­cally any­where – I ad­mit to en­ter­ing a few dur­ing some of the less than cap­ti­vat­ing talks – here too our plant friends can help us in our ex­plo­rations. Cer­tain herbs, termed oneirogens, can fa­cil­i­tate vi­sions of dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters and di­men­sions, from the sud­den flash of a hyp­n­a­gogic hal­lu­ci­na­tion to the vivid crackle of a lu­cid dream. Josie Mali­nowski brought the two al­tered states to­gether in a talk that looked at the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween psy­che­delic episodes and our nightly nat­u­ral trips. Both share strange trans­for­ma­tions of every­day re­al­ity and both are side­lined by main­stream med­i­cal sci­ence, al­though if MAPS has their way, at least some psy­che­delic ex­pe­ri­ence will gain of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion.

Martin Lee, co-au­thor of the clas­sic Acid Dreams, re­minded us of the CIA’s role in the early days of psychedelia. Like Thomas Roberts, Lee formed part of a to­ken show of what one chair­per­son re­ferred to as the “di­nosaurs” of psychedelia, the old school that the new crew both nods to with re­spect and wishes it could leave be­hind. Per­haps this muted ac­knowl­edge­ment is a recog­ni­tion that, as the or­gan­is­ers say, “It’s all been done be­fore,” and “the lessons we can learn from psychedelics are never new”. 2 But one hopes that at the sem­i­nars on DMT, ibo­gaine, mi­cro­dos­ing, and the pineal gland, as well as the many work­shops, some new in­sights and per­spec­tives might have popped up.

The high point of the con­fer­ence for me, though, was Erik Davis’s bril­liant talk on “The Weird­ness of Be­ing,” a per­sua­sive ar­gu­ment for keep­ing it “strange”. While recog­nis­ing the value of both the “safe” and “sa­cred” ap­proaches, Davis won­dered about the place of the psy­che­delic ex­pe­ri­ence in con­texts that aim to make it more ac­cept­able, which ul­ti­mately means util­i­tar­ian. Trac­ing the no­tion of the “weird” from its Gothic roots, through Love­craft and other pulp masters, to its em­brace in psychedelia, Davis asks a dif­fi­cult ques­tion. Has the grad­ual seep­age of the “weird”, which means a de­vi­a­tion from the main route, into main­stream cul­ture neutered it? When ev­ery­thing is weird, as it seems to be to­day, what’s left for those with a pen­chant for the outré? What’s left to trans­gress when noth­ing’s for­bid­den? In a cul­ture oc­cu­pied with what is safe and sa­cred, where is there a place for the strange? Maybe this presents a con­ven­tion we might con­sider break­ing... NOTES

1 In­tro­duc­tion sched­ule for Break­ing Con­ven­tion 4th In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on Psy­che­delic Con­scious­ness

2 Ibid.

ABOVE LEFT: The Univer­sity of Green­wich’s David Luke with a shaman. ABOVE CEN­TRE: No­to­ri­ous psy­che­delic di­nosaur Den­nis McKenna ar­rives in Green­wich. ABOVE RIGHT: Glimpses of the Six­ties could be found in the ‘Psy­che­delic Mu­seum’ even if the ‘Sum­mer of Love’ was largely side­lined by the con­fer­ence.

ABOVE RIGHT: Seed Sis­tas Karen Law­ton and Fiona Heck­les are do­ing it for them­selves.

ABOVE LEFT: Oc­cultist Ju­lian Vayne puts the sa­cred into the psy­che­delic.

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