I returned recently from the World Psychedelic Forum in Basel, March 21-24, 2008. It was massive. It was beautifully organized. The shift to a psychedelically informed culture is well underway. 1900-plus people, from 37 countries attended the four day event, according to Dieter Hagenbach, of gaiamedia, organizers of the event. A big bookstore. A room dedicated to video presentations—art and documentary.
SNAPSHOTS of the Forum…..
There were at least four simultaneous tracks of presentations, but you could pick up the ones you missed on DVD hours after they were given. It’s worth a look at the program to see the depth and breadth of topics covered. Uses of psychedelics beyond the medical and psychiatric applications were covered: cognitive enhancement, sensory acuity; heart opening; the ecodelic insights and teaching; creativity, innovation, novelty applied to various disciplines; problem-solving and its relation to intelligence and intelligence agents; and aesthetics and art.
I’m not even going to attempt to review individual presentations, beyond a few impressions from my own peculiar viewpoint. Like how funny Dennis McKenna is in his talks. As droll as Terence was, only with his own biochemical flavors.
Rick Doblin (founder of M.A.P.S.) is as persuasive a man as I’ve ever heard—and keeping up the good cheer and relentless pursuit of the goal of legitimizing psychedelic research for this many years is a superhuman feat in itself. Or the grounded good sense of Mountain Girl, who kept reminding me of Wild West Woman Calamity Jane.
But the conversations with people synchronistically woven into my life—there lay sheer magic. Speaking with a woman who has been trying to find the perfect circumstance for taking a psychedelic for the first time—for 30 years, I think she said. Tjalle, a seasoned psychonaut with her own long history, practicing in Egypt, brought me tales of other xenolinguists. There was Frank, who understands the birth of new languages in the psychedelic sphere. And Sita, gateway to the Ayahuasca Convergence 2008. Sara, feisty aerial dancer from Bristol….
I gave a presentation in a Rising Researchers session—which I was entirely too worked up about, and ended having to improvise due to tech troubles. The talk turned into a statement not so much about my work in Xenolinguistics, but some personal thoughts and feelings. I’ve felt positively squeamish at times, not (only) due to the agoraphobia of coming out of the nested closets I’ve built around “the work.” The politics of academic knowledge demand conformity to certain paradigms that exclude key forms of knowing opened by psychedelics. Subjectivity, for starters. Transdisciplinarity. Heart knowledge, and how it isn’t necessarily separate from analytical approaches. I question myself, deeply, every step of the way, as to what I am omitting, what is unspeakable at the level of academic practice circa the early 21st century. Or how I am reducing aspects of psychedelic experience to current paradigms of disciplinary knowledge, to communicate at all, to be understood, much less to convince. It’s been a rhetorical issue in part: how much can I shape my material to the available discourses without losing its essential qualities and meanings? It’s an ethical issue for me, beneath it all. In the quest for acceptance, how to maintain the passion of the quest? I saw no lack of passion among the well-known or the rising researchers. And, for myself, a reaffirmation: the articulation of what I have experienced in this nine year noetic quest to understand a set of psychedelically informed alien linguistic signs must, to have a maximum value to myself or others, be accomplished in a manner which is true to the material being studied, first and foremost, even if that material exceeds the bounds of current disciplinary paradigms, and commonly employed methodologies.
What I saw in Basel was a surge of confidence across the entire varied field of psychedelic studies, above ground and under. Factually, most have a foot in both worlds. The closing ceremonies were deeply moving. Jon Hanna played a taped phone call from Casey Hardison, acid chemist currently in jail in the UK, trying to break into new legal territory in his own defense. Hanna reminded us of the role played by the outlaw scientists who provide our sacraments, and our research materials, and that the vast amount of psychedelic research is underground. That a few sprouts are being given sanction to grow above ground, after all these years, is tribute to those who have been fighting the battles, steadily, for so long. But this growth rests on the underground. To state the obvious—how many who are now pursuing psychedelic research had the life-changing experiences that resulted in the pursuit of an academically-iffy-at-best career in a legal setting? And it’s this vast mycelial underground of personal connections, and material and information interchange, including technologies of cultivation, which is now spreading at warp speed. Thanks to the WWW (mycelial in structure), the super-structures of the blogosphere and social networking, the power and specific targeting of the search engines, and the growth of high signal-to-noise repositories of information such as Erowid, M.A.P.S., and the Council on Spiritual Practices, and the podcasts on Matrixmasters (to name a few), the vital knowledge spreads and connects, filament by filament.
The scheduling of psychoactive substances certainly constricted research in the field and can be considered a bug in the program. But I want to suggest that this bug in many cases has been turned into a feature, forcing creative adaptation of the field in order to survive. And research, of course, never stopped.
At the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce declared, “I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can, and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use . . . silence, exile, and cunning.”
That strategy has paid big dividends in our field. We’ve become world experts at low-cost, DIY, under the radar research, and media communications. We’ve made chemical, horticultural, psychological, technological, ecological, artistic, and spiritual leaps forward.
Without silence, exile and cunning, and the secret Dublin of the soul, I would not have accomplished my own research, that noetic quest to understand an alien language, Glide.
But for me it’s time to have more speech than silence, which can involve dreaming up ever more apt and creative ways of coming out of the closet. Doing this Ph.D. work is one. As far as exile goes—it seems to be basic to the human condition—that feeling that I’m a stranger in a strange land, that no one speaks my language, that the experience of being known at depth is vanishingly rare. The psychedelics have enabled startling moments of reconciliation of these feelings, across realities. The immanent paradox of these feelings of exile and isolation, the homesick longing of the human soul, is that it is a shared loneliness, a knowledge and a cure found in the boundary dissolutions we’ve felt with psychedelics. Then there’s cunning—I don’t think it’s time to let go of that one just yet.
At the Forum’s big “panorama” sessions, I sat with upwards of a thousand others, listening to the speakers, and looking around the audience—20-somethings to 70-somethings. And younger. And older. [Strikingly absent: faces of color.] I thought about how each of us held a precious store of knowledge: our own psychedelic life-story. Mystical revelations. Prat-falls. Dangerous situations and excesses. Dark and bright traumas. Lessons learned. New knowledge put to use in art, science, healing, relationships, the living of life in the alembic of personal transformation dreaming of collective bettering. However we see ourselves—or others—on the psychedelic paths of exploration, I think it all needs to be said. Not just “for the record” but because it seems necessary to hear about both the diversity of experiences, and the even greater diversity of interpretations of those experiences. And the roles we take on regarding the psychedelic experience. One day, I’m a poor dumb sum’bitch trying to integrate supremely discontinuous states of mind and heart. The next day, I’m an ontological engineer where tinkering meets transformation—repeatedly dismantling the “ego” (whatever that really is) and re-configuring it, with a few new strange pieces, and others gone missing in action forever. I multiplied my own experience by the 1900 people at the Forum in Basel and the whole auditorium transformed into Ali Baba’s cave. Wall to wall treasure, waiting to be told. Stored in secret, obsessive journals, expressed in music and painting and computer animations, in aerial dancing, in new rituals, in huge festivals, in computer programs and botanical gardens and hidden laboratories. Shared perhaps in one’s closest psychedelic circle, or to oneself alone, experimenting solo for years. I know that when others tell their stories of psychedelic self-exploration, get them into print, up on the web, self-published, or best-selling, I read them, every one that crosses my path. I learn from them, deeply. Some stories end in untimely death. Some in deep peace. Some in fame, jail, Nirvana or nuthouse. I want to know it all. The protocols and the pitfalls. The science and the sacred silliness. The recreational, the sacramental, the practical problem-solving, the healing, the going-native stories, the high-dose heroics, and the struggles to bring reasonable discourse into the irrationalities and vested interests of drug policy world-wide. I think there is great great value in these narratives of the long-term development of lives, knowledge, and relationships under the sun and shadow of psychedelics. Our stories. What does it mean to live simultaneously in the mythical and the mundane? How will we find the persons living in adjacent myths, if we don’t state our own? What does it mean to keep faith with a myth while plying a planetside trade, and keeping the usual planetside muddles of relationships, friends, families, afloat? How do we build our own models, outside of, but informed by, the cultures which have been navigating the transdimensional commute for a long time?
Terence McKenna made the point, many times, that it’s the content that is under-represented in our psychedelic discourse. Telling it like it is. As big, or bizarre, or “this changes everything” as it may be. Only when the stories are told, the narratives, unfolding in a single session, or multiple sessions over a period of months or years, can we begin to recognize our maps of any given vision, and see the patterns in the details of the unfolding of longitudinal processes of sequential visionary states, the personal and interpersonal evolution, across reality domains. And find the fellow travelers, living in adjacent myths.
I think it’s worthwhile to give a detailed example of such a myth. In his book, The Cosmic Serpent, Jeremy Narby re-tells Michael Horner’s story of his first ayahuasca journey. This an extensive quote; the detail is important to my argument.
“After multiple episodes, which would be too long to describe here, Harner became convinced that he was dying. He tried calling out to his Conibo friends for an antidote without managing to pronounce a word. Then he saw that his visions emanated from “giant reptilian creatures” resting at the lowest depths of his brain. These creatures began projecting scenes in front of his eyes, while informing him that this information was reserved for the dying and the dead: ‘First they showed me the planet Earth as it was eons ago, before there was any life on it. I saw an ocean, barren land, and a bright blue sky. Then black specks dropped from the sky by the hundreds and landed in front of me on the barren landscape. I could see the ‘specks’ were actually large, shiny black creatures with tubby pterodactyl-like wings and huge whale-like bodies…They explained to me in a kind of thought language that they were fleeing from something out in space. They had come to the planet earth to escape their enemy. The creatures then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their presence. Before me, the magnificence of plant and animal creation and speciation—hundreds of millions of years of activity—took place on a scale and with a vividness impossible to describe. I learned that the dragon-like creatures were thus inside all forms of life, including man.’
At the point in his account, Harner writes in a footnote at the bottom of the page: In retrospect one could say they were almost like DNA, although at that time, 1961, I knew nothing of DNA.”
Narby makes the connections between the ayahuasqueros superior and detailed plant knowledge, the representations of twined serpents, and the forms of DNA, finding DNA to be, essentially, minded, intelligent, and communicating—intra-cellularly, inter-cellularly, inter-organism, and inter-species. Life is a vast, complex, interconnected signaling system, with DNA as the transceiver, and biophotonic emissions as the signals—and sources of at least some aspect of the visions one sees in psychedelic states. But what about the narrative? The creatures fleeing an enemy through interstellar space, landing here, creating life-forms to hide within and “disguise their presence”? Having had a similar vision myself, with a similar narrative attached, on a high-dose psilocybin journey, what shall I make of this? Who else has had this particular story emblazoned, full of urgency and amazement, on their minds in a psychedelic state? How do these similar narratives arise, in all their detail, independently, under conditions of extreme consciousness alteration? What does this tell us about how myths arise? But why? How? And if I repeat this story now, adding my own, as Narby repeats Harner’s story—will there be other readers who remember some similar story, who are living in adjacent myths? And how do we then interpret these events? If DNA not only holds a vast store of information, linguistically structured, but is also intelligent—minded—and connected to the mostly similar DNA in the highly diverse, complexly related, and deeply nested organisms, across vast scalar differences–well, we’ve arrived at the Gaia hypothesis, haven’t we? And/or the noosphere. So—visions present stories, stories beg for an interpretative framework. But it is the network of interconnected stories (scientific, visionary) about the network of interconnected life-forms that reveal this planet as a wonder we take mostly for granted, a wonder that is restored in psychedelic states.
Our stories are important. The content beyond even such taxonomic triumphs as Shanon’s Antipodes of the Mind. The visions, as revealed in single journeys, and developed over many explorations, form their epic narratives—and connect to other stories, to form the larger narratives. And there is noetic treasure here that can help us track, and relate, and understand, a little at a time, these psychedelic experiences, form larger pictures, compare the master narratives that emerge, compare the models that are being put forth, share local knowledge, attempt maps. Whether we frame these changes that psychedelics are bringing about on individual and cultural domains as revolution or evolution, whether we characterize them as catalysts, solvents, sacraments, teachers, alien intelligences, the keys to the kingdom, or the open sesame to Ali Baba’s cave, will be part of the discourse for a long time to come.
Oh–and here’s a video clip I didn’t get to show in Basel. Glide and the I Ching.