More thoughts about history while thinking about ayahuasca
Before listening to Led Zeppelin yesterday, I found myself in a huge, drafty space with eerie lights and loads of evil spirits floating around. The Indian music that was playing nurtured the evil by chiseling open the weak spots in my defenses. I started to worry about sorcery. It is not usually something that I worry about. I’ve often told my girlfriend that I don’t have to worry about ghosts and sorcerers hurting me because I don’t believe them, and she agrees. But this space was so otherworldly and alien that I easily began to understand why many ayahuasca drinkers felt vulnerable there and worried about sorcery. It didn’t help that both my ex-wife and girlfriend have asked monks and shamans to cast spells that will manipulate my affections, and possibly to punish me.
It also occurred to me that these evil spirits might just be my own poisonous emotions. This interpretation was much more appealing and I tried to convince myself it was true. But the problem is that sorcery is adept at deception. By treating the spirits as mere emotions, I might be lulled into dropping my defenses and lured into their clutches. It was a paranoid’s paradise.
It had all the makings of a bad trip. I had to do something. I turned off the music. And I made a practical decision: I have no idea how to deal with sorcery, but I do have some ideas about how to deal with poisonous emotions. Instead of fighting them, I would just go with the flow, see what images they produced and what memories they dragged up. It helped. That huge, threatening space got a little bit smaller and less drafty, and it filled up with filing cabinets. It was an historical archive! If I wanted a memory, all I had to do was look it up in a drawer and pull out the file. There’s me feeling lonely and abandoned in my crib. There’s me trying to bury myself in my grandmother’s bosom. There’s me listening to one of my old friends talk on and on, influencing my ideas about how to live. I even had some files about people close to me. There’s Luna living her childhood in desperate hope that she could make her absent father return.
But I quickly realized that there were limitations to this research (beyond the fact that I really had no way to cross-check my findings). The archive setting created a comfortable and familiar space that protected me from those rampaging spirits. But it is precisely the same space I have lived in over the past 20 years to repress and ignore those spirits. My researches might give me some intellectual insights, but they still keep me separate from those churning emotions. I am still fearful, unable to express or deal with them.
So I turned on the music again. This time I chose classic rock, something familiar that could appeal to the emotions of my youth. Having been a white, suburban teenager in the 70s and early 80s, I of course worship at the altar of Zep. So Zeppelin music seemed the most appropriate.
My last post reported some of the results of this musical choice. I outlined the bulk of that post while I imagined coming down from the Ayahuasca. At the time it seemed like a great way to build a bridge between my psychedelic experiences and intellectual interests. In hindsight, I am a bit more ambivalent. Framing my experience in academic terms is just one more way to avoid dealing with those poisonous emotions. And if I don’t deal with those emotions, they are going to keep on coming back as sorcery and other crappy things. Also, academic perspectives can not really deal with the overwhelming strangeness and impact of the worlds encountered through psychedelics. I have only had fleeting glimpses of those worlds. But from what I have seen I am flabbergasted by the complete indifference of that world to the processes of human history.
To be sure, an historical analysis could show the ways in which experiences of that world are shaped by social and cultural expectations, and how those expectations are built on the descriptions and expectations that came before. In other words, the meanings we project onto that world are not inherent to that world itself, but derive from our social experience. And this is all be good and true. But the danger of this kind of analysis is the implication that it is all about social construction. It too easily leads to the insistence that all experience is really only about power, money, Darwinian survival or neurochemical balances—i.e all the things capitalism claims to be true (even while the real practice of capitalism is all about creating and promoting desires and fantasies). It shows no respect for the overwhelming impact of the experience itself—however we construct it. Some people talk about ego death, a higher plane, an alternate universe, a white light, a mystical experience, getting closer to god, or whatever. Right now the only words I can use to describe it are “a place where all kinds of really weird shit happens that has a vague relation to us, but really couldn’t care less about us.” Other people talk about being suffused with a feeling of pure love. I haven’t experienced that, but it seems like a better narrative than the one I am on and I am willing work towards that goal.
Some religions have channelled and promoted this experience in a way that gives meaning and social context. This is rarely the case now. Most mainstream religions have become hostile to ecstatic experiences, especially independent ones. But we live in time when chemicals, sexual techniques, raves and a variety of gurus promise easy access to these experiences. And for no more than the exchange of a few dollars, the chemicals can often deliver on the promise (the other methods can too, but much less frequently). But these experiences necessarily take place at the margins. The large religions and political establishment are much more invested in suppressing the chemicals and sexual commerce than in integrating them as part of the social fabric. How can we make sense of these experiences in a way that does not reduce them to the clichés of materialist capitalism?
Psychoanalysis is one modern trend that has developed a good relation with psychedelics. Psychoanalytic self-exploration has proven to be a good way to create order and meaning out of the experiences. But they only go so far. Personal history seems to be a good framework for accessing those experiences, but at some point we reach a space where it seems totally irrelevant and we are left on our own. (although Carl Jung had many ideas about how to extend psychoanalysis beyond the personal. See also the work of Stanislav Graf).
Science, on the other hand, has not developed a good relation with psychedelics. It rarely engages with the experience, and often tries to explain it away when it does. Among scientists who are open to the experience on its own terms, their elucidation of chemical and neurological structures have only tentative insight. Other scientists are exploring practical uses for psychedelics that range from curing cluster headaches to stopping cigarette addiction to easing the anxiety of cancer patients. This is a necessary way to go, given the social and legal constrains on psychedelic use. But this approach ultimately depends on this-world justification for the psychedelic experience. It only leaves us on the doorstep.
Many proponents of psychedelic use have embraced Eastern or shamanistic religions as a way to make sense of their experiences. I’ve spent enough time in my girlfriend’s ghost-infested landscape in rural Thailand, and seen enough of her ghost-free life in Bangkok and the U.S. to think that these religions will not translate easily to the modern world of chemicals and individualistic psychonautics–at least not in their mystical sense (although Buddhism as stress-relief is doing well). The tribal/art-based sociability surrounding Burning Man and other festivals may be working towards an innovative integration of the psychedelic experience and our modern social lives. I have never attended, so I can only speculate. My impression from reading accounts is that it is still in a state of flux: the arrival of big money and air-conditioned RVs is changing the nature of the festival, and many attendees only feel loss when they return home from the festival, unable to incorporate the experience into their daily lives.
For now, at least, I am more attracted to personal exploration that mass gathering and changing the world. I am surely infected by modern individualism. I also find the broader capitalist-scientific world that we live in to be equal parts fascinating, objectionable and attractive. And, for now, I am still attached to my skills in historical research and analysis. However much the psychedelic world may be indifferent to us, the way we experience these psychedelic and sexual encounters are at least partly a product of life in this world of science and capitalism (see previous post). If we are going to find meaning and significance in these encounters, we have to work with what we have. . . . I see I am convincing myself about the value of my last post.