Archive for September, 2007

Those engaged in psychedelic science—legit or outlaw flavors—assume, as the ancient profession of shaman has always presumed, that the discoveries, the observations, the affordances, and the actions available to a person in an altered state are useful to the community. How useful?

Certainly the insights of psychedelic science—at least the raw observations—have penetrated the zone of mainstream science in an epistemologically potent fashion at the hotspot of biotechnology and genetic engineering. The ability to edit our own design is with us now in part because the LSD-assisted insights of Francis Crick (DNA structure) and Kary Mullis (PCR reaction) laid the theoretical foundation and the principle technological tool. Whether we can design or re-design our own program intelligently is a legitimate question. Attention seems to be going first to repair actions, finding the disease and deformity-causing genes and eliminating or re-writing. What happens when we start to think seriously about what we could be like, what we want to be like, what, perhaps, we need to be like.

In simplest terms—we are heading into an ecological and evolutionary crisis in a few short years. Would more intelligence be of use to tackle the problems of looming disaster? Would an enlarged capacity for compassionate relations with each other help or shall we just continue tearing each other to shreds in the fight for scarce resources? Can we engineer a body-type more adaptable to star travel if we have to flee our self-fouled nest? Or will this whole effort devolve into a marketing ploy for the fashionistas in a frivolous party-while-Rome-burns extravaganza? We’re already practicing our desires for body re-design on Second Life.

Re-tooling the bodymind for survival with a full confrontation that it is our very selves we need to change in order to survive is an option. Needless to say, this will be fought tooth and nail under the same schizophrenic logic that gasps in horror at the thought of human cloning while aiming at the ultimate scientific achievement: the conquest of death. Life extension is well underway. Conquering disease is moving right along. These questions, huge as they are, arise in the psychedelic sphere under the awareness of radical interconnectivity. We can call it ecological insight, or consilience, or simply Love. A science informed by Love? Is such heresy possible?


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Well, what shall we call them, those substances you ingest, inject, inhale, incorporate into the bodymind that then alter consciousness past the tipping point: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” We are in the country of alterities. This must be Oz, or one among many Oz’s. The multiverse hypotheses re-examined under direct experience.

First, in the 50’s and earlier, it was psychotomimetic, as the first model for understanding in our Enlightenmented Western disciplines was madness, and those who dealt with madness professionally—the psychiatrists—dominated the field. Hence hallucinogens, producers of the vivid—and feared—symptoms of madness: hallucinations. Psychotomimetic was the definition under which government mind-control experiments were done (at Chestnut Lodge, for instance) and has its own conspiratorial baggage.

The term psychedelic, famously coined by Humphrey Osmond in a letter to Aldous Huxley, means mind-manifesting. The term has become in part a cultural cliché, invoking the ghost of Uncle Tim in beads and Nehru shirt, tie-die shirts, and a general dirty-hippie vibe, and has been rejected by parts of the (psychedelic) community, especially in academic discourse, due to this counter-cultural baggage of recreational use.

In the 1990’s, Carl A. P. Ruck, Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, Richard Evans Schultes, Jonathan Ott and R. Gordon Wasson coined the term entheogen, to emphasize the spiritual and mystical contexts of use and experiential realms opened by these substances. This was done in part to differentiate these experiences from the cultural connotations of psychedelic and hallucinogen, with their recreational and medical contexts. The Council on Spiritual Practices, “dedicated to making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people,” focuses on the entheogenic uses of psychoactive substances.

Nootropics seems promising to me, for the noetic experience—knowing in the deepest sense of the word—and the uses of psychedelics for creativity and problem-solving are landmarks of the psychedelic sphere. But nootropics currently refers to so-called smart drugs. The Wikipedia entry on nootropic steers clear of any mention of psychedelics, despite the centrality of the discussion of neurotransmitter effects.

Psychoactive is the most inclusive, least culturally “loaded”, and also least differentiated term in use as it covers any and all drugs that produce a subjectively “different” state of mind, not necessarily of the “not-Kansas” potency. This term is used for a full spectrum of drugs, including anti-depressants and anti-psychotics, but retains the flavor of the psychedelic in its uses.

Of course there’s drugs. According to Wikipedia, “A drug is any chemical or biological substance, synthetic or non-synthetic, that when taken into the organism’s body, will in some way alter the functions of that organism.” The cultural territory of drugs is bounded by Big Pharma on one one side and the War on Drugs on the other, with the Big Brother of black budget government mind control research prowling the perimeter. The word is rendered useless in an academic context unless one is firmly placed in a field such as pharmacology, law enforcement, or medical treatment of addiction. When the term drugs is used from those fields in reference to the psychedelics, they are painted in a relentlessly negative light.

So—we call them substances, not drugs. Materials, sometimes. Allies or plant teachers or guides or sacraments in shamanic or enthoegenic settings. If we call them drugs, it is privately, amongst the inner circles of trust of the underground and recreational communities.

In the politics of knowledge, which surround psychedelic research on all sides, the terms matter. More to be said on this in a future post, to be sure. I choose psychedelic as my main term to talk about this topic, though I reserve the right to use any of the other terms in their proper context. I like the etymology; mind-manifesting is a functional definition. On a personal note, as a child of the 60’s, psychedelic is the most authentic term I can be using. After all, I was there for the Real Scene(s) (or at least my corner of them, and there were many) before the cultural clichés. None of the terms encompass the protean nature of the experiences. Coining another new term does not seem productive, unless I someday figure out how to refer to the catalysis of consciousness that produces such profound changes, temporarily, and long-term, in lives and minds. If you want to engage the nomenclature problem, read a couple hundred trip reports on Erowid and come to grips with finding a word that can encompass them all. Better yet, perform the basic experiment of all psychedelic research–above and underground: Ingest a psychedelic substance. Observe what happens. Report. Try to make sense out of it. Repeat.

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