A THORNY PROBLEM
Road builders versus Ireland’s fairy trees
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
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.