The Medicine Path
Welcome to day one of PSYJuly 2021!
I’m thrilled that we have psychonautic author Julian Vayne kicking off our carnival this year. I first met Julian over lunch in Berlin at Altered conference in 2017, and have since bumped into him at a couple more conferences, Beyond Psychedelics in Prague 2018, where I interviewed him for a video series, and then the first Occulture in Berlin 2019.
I have to say he is one of the friendliest and warmest people I’ve met on the circuit and has always willingly lent his help and support to projects I’ve been involved in. It’s a great pleasure to share his work here on Maps of the Mind.
Before getting started, I’d just like to notify you that there is now a PSYJuly homepage, where you can find links to all the articles. I will update it as the month progresses.
Without further ado, over to Julian…
The Medicine Path
Mind-altering drugs go with human spirituality the same way that music goes with human celebration. Sometimes the consciousness-changing substance is primarily symbolic (like the wine in the chalice at a Catholic Mass), other times the chemistry is central to the process (as with the use of ayahuasca by a South American curandero). Across times and cultures, psychoactive materials have been a ubiquitous part of the human experience. They may be used to generate peak experiences, like the revelations sought by mystics. They may be used instrumentally, to do something, such as an act of healing in shamanic or psychotherapeutic context. They may also be about communion, experiencing joy or empathy, and sharing those feelings with others (as happens in the Native American peyote circle, or at a rave).
Psychedelic drugs can dramatically affect conscious awareness. Therefore, consideration of ‘set’ and ‘setting’ are crucial to the way a trip unfolds. ‘Set’ includes everything ‘within’ the (mind) set of the individual, their mood, expectations and memories of previous experiences. Setting includes everything ‘without’, from the immediate environment of the trip, the presence or not of other people, through to the broader cultural backdrop (which, of course folds back into the ‘set’) of the experience.
The mental states that psychedelics give us access to can potentially prove as extreme as heaven or hell, and which state we find ourselves in is, in large part, determined by our orientation to the experience. For example, on LSD one might joyfully exclaim, “Look at all the little faces in the trees!” However, under less positive circumstances, the exact same perception of faces in the forest, the very same words uttered in different tones, might be imagined as unnerving, or utterly terrifying.
In a sense all experience can be conceptualised as chemical process (it is the complex interaction of chemistry that arises into your ‘self’ that is reading these words). Through the intelligent use of these sacred substances we can reveal, explore and change the self that we are, and by doing so, change our world.
Why Take Psychedelics?
There are many, often overlapping, reasons that people seek out the psychedelic experience.
More than two millennia have passed since Socrates claimed that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. The restless desire to discover who and what we are, to explore, and to make meaning, is intrinsic to all humans. For some people drugs can be allies in that exploration. One may be simply curious of what these states are like, especially when framed within the context of ritual practices.
Whether illness exists in the personal, psychological, physiological, social or even cultural body, psychedelic drugs can act as medicine. The healing power of these substances can appear spontaneously or may be encouraged by methods derived from psychoanalysis, shamanism and other approaches. Psychedelic drugs can combat alienation, depression, isolation and ennui, and can occasionally have clear effects on other forms of illness. This can occasionally include remission or cure of organic illnesses or chronic conditions, or at least an improved psychological relationship with such health problems. Addictions and other debilitating psychological habits may be broken by the skilled use of psychedelics.
The peak experiences encountered by inspired individuals (mystics, shaman and prophets) can be accessed by the sacred use of drugs. Ecstasy, rapture and other often life-changing, frequently (though not exclusively) pleasurable, states can be encountered. These may be highly internalised experiences or may be intimately linked with the tripping environment (psychedelics used outdoors often provoke experiences of the natural world as sacred, enchanted, sublime etc.).
Psychedelics can allow us to enter what appear to be other realities or realms of experience. Whether we like to imagine that these experiences are of fantastical, internal and imaginal worlds, or represent some more objectively real realm (such as the ‘astral’, or a dimension populated by alien beings), is a matter for personal reflection and exploration.
Occult or parapsychological
Substances that alter the mind may be used to empower acts of magic. This could mean prayers, Neo-Pagan spells, divination procedures, or any method that seeks to use the power of the imagination to interact with the past, present or future through occult (i.e. mysterious) means. Magical acts include techniques aimed at creating a particular external and concrete result; they may be ‘acts of psychological neurohacking’ (implanting positive affirmations in the mind). Psychonauts may want to conduct experiments with psychokinesis, extrasensory perception and other parapsychological phenomena while high.
Drugs can be used not only to explore our own psyche and social relationships but can lead to concrete insights into the arts and sciences and potentially give rise to new artworks, technologies and other innovations. They can enhance problem solving, stimulate new ideas, and demolish conceptual or psychological blocks to creativity.
Preparation for death
Drugs can be used to explore how it may feel to die. They can teach us the importance of ‘giving up’ to the experience, providing a broader perspective on our own mortality and reducing anxiety about death.
Psychoactives can be used as initiatory tools to create a radical discontinuity in experience and allow the individual to experience a rebirth.
There need not be a strict division between spirituality, play and enjoyment, and ‘re-creation’ can itself be a healing act, something that nourishes our souls. Psychedelics used for recreation can help remind us of the simple joys of life, things we sometimes forget because we are so busy getting from A to Z that we forget there are 24 letters in between.
The enjoyment and fun of getting high may be an important reason for including psychedelic drugs in one’s life. While some forms of religion encourage a belief that pleasure is morally wrong (that all the world is suffering, the body is sinful etc.) there are other spiritual beliefs (ancient, contemporary and emerging) that take a very different position. Within many Neo-Pagan cultures the idea that one should (while being mindful of the rights of others) ‘follow one’s bliss’ or ‘do what thou wilt’ allows the delight in getting higher to be a legitimate expression of a life and world affirming attitude, and a valid spiritual practice.
Potentiation and safety
A small dose of a substance may be potentiated by ritual or other procedures. Pragmatically this means that the user gets more ‘bang for their buck’. Ritual techniques used to enhance the set and setting of the psychedelic experience can make that experience feel deeper, stronger and richer. Intelligent manipulation of set/setting can also help people feel safer, reducing the likelihood of ‘bad trips’ and other difficulties.
Research on the effect of some psychedelics has begun to make use of technology to look at brain activity of people whilst high. My current, purely layperson, understanding of their results suggests that the classic psychedelic drugs work by causing less connectivity and/or activity in the region of the brain which acts as a processing hub (so, the part which decides what we pay attention to, and centralises many other inputs); simultaneously connectivity increases between areas which are normally isolated in their functions. These areas tend to deal with sensory inputs, and movement. This effect mimics some of the benefits of meditation. In practice this means that the sense of an ego identity gets ‘turned down’, whilst immediate physical environmental processing takes on strange new forms; e.g. ‘seeing’ uses more than just the visual cortex to process images; memories can be retrieved as pictures, and other areas get involved too, with notable effects such as synesthesia.
Psychedelic drugs may provide periods of remission for people suffering degenerative neurological conditions (such as Alzheimer’s). These effects can sometimes be observed at microdose levels (which cause imperceptible sensorial effects). Psychedelic drugs may enhance organic brain processes such as neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain cells to form new connections), and compounds found in some psychedelics have been shown to cause neurogenesis (neuron formation from neural stem cells).
Finding your way
An exploration of how we can include psychedelics in our individual process can be a life-long journey. For some the psychedelic experience may be best avoided, for others perhaps only a handful of journeys in a lifetime may be needed. Seek good advice, tread gently on this path and may you discover the medicine you need for the benefit for yourself and all beings.
This article was adapted from Getting Higher: The Manual of Psychedelic Ceremony. Highly recommended!
Julian Vayne is an occultist and the author of numerous books, essays, journals and articles in both the academic and esoteric press. While his name is closely associated with chaos magic Julian is also an initiated Wiccan, member of the Kaula Nath lineage and Master Mason. Over the past 30 plus years he has participated in group ceremony with a variety of druids, shamans and others as well as sharing his own practice through public workshops, retreats and networks of practitioners including The Illuminates of Thanateros.