TRIPPING WITH THE GODS:
ON ENTHEOGENIC SPIRITUALITY
(Published on the blog Humanistic Paganism, Summer 2020)
Contrary to the prohibitionist propaganda that is disseminated by our dominant culture, some drugs, when consumed with sacred intention in carefully crafted rituals, can be magical portals to vividly visionary and exotic realms, catalysts for deep and profound spiritual transformations , and challenging teachers offering the lesson plan of a life time. Moreover, humans can learn to consume these substances moderately and safely and not fall victim to hardcore dysfunctional addiction. While this fact goes against the common sense of our culture, it was a part of the wisdom traditions of our ancestors in at least some early tribal societies for up to 40,000 years.
My concern in this paper is to explore the spiritual potential of entheogenic sacraments. Basically, an entheogen is any drug that when used with sacred intention induces a spiritual experience. The term is often chosen to contrast the recreational use of the same drugs. The literal meaning of “entheogen” in Greek is "that which causes God to be within an individual”.
Examples of entheogen use include: the use of peyote, a green-gray cactus, among Native Americans of Texas and the ancient Aztecs of Mexico; the use of ergot, a fungus which grows on wheat and rye, among ancient Greeks; the use of amanita muscaria, the “magical mushroom”, which was used in ancient India, Siberia and Greece, the use of opium, a flowering plant growing in Southeastern Europe and Western Asia, and coca, a plant native to the Andes of South America. Other examples of sacred plants being used in religious ceremonies include: the use of ayahuasca in Santo Daime, a religion which originated in the Brazilian rainforests, which draws upon European Catholicism, African religiosity and indigenous shamanism; the use of San Pedro cacti in healing ceremonies by Peruvian curanderismo, and iboga use by the Bwiti cult in Ecuadorian Africa.
The use of entheogens is very ancient and very widespread. From Siberia to India, from Western Europe to the Ural Mountains, from the Andean mountaintops to the Amazonian rainforests, entheogens played important roles in “primitive” spirituality. R. Gordon Wasson, the late Harvard ethnobotanist, theorized that entheogens may have given rise to human religion (Wasson, Kramrisch, Ott and Ruck 1986).
My explorations here are done in the context of naturalist approaches to religion, specifically within Religious Naturalism. Religious Naturalists want to eliminate the massive gap that currently exists between science and religion concerning the nature and content of reality by tossing out any “truth claims” that are not based on empirical evidence. Included here would be Otherworldly explanations of natural events, superstitions and unfounded folk beliefs. Religious Naturalists think that the scientific process, guided by skepticism and informed by logic and critical thinking, can and should help us determine what is real. Science, while not perfect and subject to human error, represents one of the greatest achievements in human history, allowing us to probe the mysteries of the universe. Religious Naturalists insist that everything that exists exists within nature. These are people who know that science and religion need not be enemies and that this world we live in is a very holy place.
Humanistic Paganism, the name of the blog this essay is appearing in, is, at least to me, a version of Religious Naturalism, albeit one more focused on reclaiming elements of the pre-Christian polytheist religions of northern and western Europe, such as the Celtic versions of the “”Old Religion” emerging as modern Wicca, Witchcraft and Druidry. The phrase Humanistic Paganism is used in contrast to another subgroup of modern Pagans referred to as “Hard Polytheists”, who insist that their deities are living entities. Both Humanistic Paganism and Religious Naturalism are part of the new movement to create a freestanding Nature Religion ground in a scientific worldview, with a decidedly Pagan ethos, and with an activist political ecology.
My version of this spiritual orientation is called Dionysian Naturalism (DN). Friedrich Nietzsche prophesied a Dionysian religion of the future that would immanentist, pantheist and not offer an “afterlife” but direct our focus to this world here and now. In my rendering DN is insurgent in its character, insisting that people who hold Nature as sacred must actively work toward the Sustainability Revolution—a total rethinking of our way of life and social structures. This engaged ethics of caring and environmental activism are common among all versions of Religious Naturalism. Following the practices of the original followers of Dionysus in ancient Greece, the Maenads, who worshipped Dionysus in four-day festive celebrations in which wines fortified with psychedelic plants were consumed, my version of Dionysian Naturalism embraces entheogenic spirituality.
I realize that the spiritual use of entheogens is foreign, frightening and fearful to many in our largely prohibitionist culture, saturated as it is with “drug war ideologies”. Our culture distrusts the mystic, demonizes the drug user and paints users of psychedelics as burnt-out hippies hoping for a Dead show. Most people have little sense of the mystical possibilities enabled through the use of psychotropic substances as sacraments. My deep studies of the Anthropology of Shamanism, Ethnobotany, and Comparative Religious Studies have suggested a framework for re-integrating “drugs” back into our lives in ways that are healthy and productive. As a certified drug and alcohol counselor I am aIso well versed in the negative consequences of modern drug abuse.
I begin by presenting an overview of entheogen use in human history highlighting how changing economic conditions and structures of power impacted the consumption of psychedelic sacraments. I then focus on the Shamanic Wisdom Traditions of “controlled use” found among our ancestors in archaic forager societies (frequently called “hunting and gathering societies”). In these nomadic tribal societies shamans are the carriers of vast amounts of ecological, medical and spiritual wisdom, including how to consume powerful psychotropic plants in ways that are safe and productive.
The nature of the entheogenic experience is then explored, emphasizing the spiritual potential of these sacraments. If we are to have an Entheogenic Reformation, as many modern commentators hope, we must reclaim something like the shamanic wisdom traditions, gathering knowledge about how to use drugs successfully in sacred ceremonies. The importance of preparation and integration is discussed in the new Entheogenic Wisdom Traditions advanced. I end this essay by exploring how entheogenic consumption could help launch the Sustainability Revolution needed to fight climate change by cultivating mindsets in which egos are flattened and ecological consciousness is increased.
The use of substances to alter consciousness seems to be innate. UCLA Professor Ronald Siegel (2005) calls it the “fourth universal drive”, as natural as hunger, thirst and sex. Many other animal species also pursue intoxication, including elephants, cats, monkeys, jaguars and bees. No amount of prohibitionist indoctrination has yet been able to uproot these primal instincts. Drug war ideologies are forced upon all school children who learn to recite in unison “Just say no!”. Instead we must learn to accept human nature for what it is, letting go of our Enlightenment fantasies of the rational human.
Humans have always and will always seek ways to alter states of consciousness. “Drugs” are quick, simple, convenient and readily available across the globe. Anthropologists estimate that 90% of tribal cultures have ritualized means of altering consciousness through psychotropic plants (Bourguignon 1973).
Many years ago I sought to create “a genealogy of drug use and addiction”, attempting to explore why addiction is such a huge problem in contemporary societies, while virtually unknown in archaic forager societies. I have learned that addiction is a modern invention that can only be understood in terms of a society in which long-standing sacred traditions have been tossed out, in which a mass psychology of misery prevails and in which the Apollonian is exalted while the Dionysian is suppressed.
To reach those conclusions I crafted a “Critical Drug Use Theory” to explore the nature of intoxicant use in different societies throughout human history. As a sociologist, I drew upon critical social theories in this examination of drug use. Critical social theories include approaches to modern society which highlight how changing economic conditions and structures of power impact the organization and experience of social life. Critical social theories are heavily indebted to Karl Marx and his “materialist conception of history”. The materialist approach focuses on how humans live day to day, their mundane labors to sustain themselves, and their productive economic activity. Following Marx,, we call these changing economic circumstances “modes of production”.
We begin by noting that human history has witnessed several distinct modes of production, including nomadic hunting and gathering societies, agricultural societies and industrial societies. In constructing a Critical Drug Use Theory, I examine how one aspect of the realm of human drives and instinctual needs is modified by changing economic conditions and structures of power. To talk about human societies before the creation of writing about 7000 years ago is an act of speculation based upon a lot of assumptions and deductions. Archeological evidence reveals little about pre-agricultural societies and whether they share a common pattern (Kuper 2017). Yet while the facts are few and far between that never stopped social theorists from speculating. These speculations about the lifestyles of “hunters and gatherers” in ancient societies, which range from images that resemble backward bogeymen to enlightened angels, are political ur-fantasies—primal projections revealing more about those who create the images than about the distant past about which we know very little (Mellinger 2013).
Regarding the topic at hand, when talking about the sacred use of entheogens by shamans in forager societies we must be careful not to perpetuate the classic myth that , in the words of anthropologist Alice Beck Kehoe, “out beyond civilization roam noble savages preserving a primordial religion more pure and true than any in the West (Kehoe 2000:2). This common myth appeals to a romantic primitivism—an imaginary of the distant past in which modern people, who feel alienated, disconnected, and distressed, long for the time when things were better and people were more satisfied.
Thus, virtually everything we can say about the Stone Age is uncertain. We have no idea exactly what these humans believed and no idea what their religion looked like. We do know that while homo sapiens have existed for 150,000-200,000 years, a major cultural revolution and upsurge in creativity happened about 20,000 years ago, marking the transition from the long-lasting Paleolithic era to the Upper Paleolithic era. Tools, ornaments and burials become significantly more elaborate. People start traveling further distances and the exchange of goods increases. Language and symbol use emerge.
What I found in my study of drug use throughout human history was initially shocking. “Primitive” people, it seems, used a wide variety of inebriating plants. They were used by almost every tribal people I came across in my scholarly pursuits, but in ways very different from most modern drug use. Moreover, these substances had very positive effects on the people that used them, and positive effects for the societies of which they were a part. I attempted to tease out what about “primitive” social organization allowed the controlled use of these intoxicants to have these positive purposes.
I discovered that the loss of shamanic rituals is the central tradition that has been swept away that has lead to drug abuse becoming a massive social problem. Stated differently, when the Dionysian aspects of human nature and human societies is respected, and shamanic wisdom traditions flourish, wise elders pass on knowledge and skilled practices that virtually ensure successful outcomes. Without the shamanic wisdom traditions, and the practice of “controlled use” and other entheogenic consuming techniques, our innate urges continue to inspire drug use but these consumers do it without having learned techniques to moderate their use nor having cultivated mindsets encouraging sacred intention and responsible use.
THE AGE OF ENTHEOGENS
Psychotropic plants played a role in the evolution of human cognitive abilities (Winkelman 2010). Entheogenic plants provide neurotransmitter analogues, such as dopamine and seratonin, that are limited in our diets and are essential for normal brain functioning. In his book Food of the Gods (1992), ethnobotanist Terence McKenna puts forward his “Stoned Ape Theory”, arguing the psilocybin, the psychedelic compound within another magical mushroom, enabled Homo erectus to evolve into Homo sapiens.
Homo sapiens with our physical bodies emerged about 200,000 years ago. Our original mode of production and lifestyle is often referred as “hunting and gathering” societies, although “forager” is a more accurate terms, because hunting was a relatively minor aspect of their lives. These nomadic tribal societies occupied at least 90% of human history and ended about 10,000 year ago with the Neolithic Revolution and the agricultural practices it brought forward.
These nomadic tribal societies had what I am calling “Shamanic Wisdom Traditions”. These traditions include techniques of “controlled drug use” which limit entheogen use to spiritual occasions in which rules and restrictions mandate moderate use. Contrary to popular belief archaic foragers lived in societies without much want, in what anthropologists call “the original affluent society” (Sahlins 1968). They enjoyed ample free time, lack of material wants, meaningful and integrating myths and belief systems, and non-oppressive political systems.
A strong sense of equality pervaded their lives and all members of the tribe shared everything they had with everyone else. A strong sense of connection to others and to the Earth pervaded their lives. Because drugs tend to amplify the emotional states of consumers, the positive psychological state of these ancient foragers helped make entheogenic sacraments enjoyable and beneficial to both individuals and tribes. After this historical overview I will return to the topic of the Shamanic Wisdom Traditions.
“Primitive societies” are acephalous or stateless and non-hierarchical societies. Social evolutionary theories hold that these societies are stateless because they did not reach the degree of economic development or level of political differentiation necessary to form a State apparatus. French anthropologist Pierre Clastres rejects such postulates and asserts that many primitive people seek to ward off the formation of a State apparatus. He argues that war, by maintaining the dispersal of groups, is the best mechanism to avert that monster, the State (Clastres 1987).
ADAPTATION TO AGRICULTURE
With the birth of agriculture and the more complex societies that subsequently emerged the original shamanic role in the tribe is altered and degraded. Other types of magico-religious leaders such as priests, witches, healers and mediums emerge. While shamans occupy the most important role in forager societies due to the non-hierarchical political organization of these societies, the adapted roles are less prestigious, and increasingly female. Winkelman states:
“The types of shamanistic healers not only differed with respect to the types of societies in which they were found but also in terms of their training, the nature of their powers, the characteristics of their ASC (i.e., soul flight versus possession), the types of healing that they do (i.e., soul recovery versus dispossession), and their relationships to social power and institutions” (see Winkelman, 1992).
Generally, shamans control the spirits while mediums are controlled by the spirits.
Agricultural societies are “dominator cultures” (Eisler 1987) which introduce class, gender and racial hierarchies. Powerful elites emerge who control the surplus and do not do their share of the labor to create that surplus. A “mass psychology of misery” starts to emerge in this agricultural era as many people are exploited, working long hours in the field, and tolerating hierarchy and oppression.
The guiding principles of dominator cultures are hierarchy, oppression, domination, exclusion, and violence. Patriarchal cultures embody authoritarian attitudes in which there is “one right way” and there is little toleration of dissent or opposition. Fundamentalist mentalities, in which individuals claim moral superiority over others, and anti-humanist attitudes which tolerate brutal acts of terror against non-conformers, are central to Neolithic patriarchy.. Empires filled with “us / them thinking” prevail and those tribes beyond the border are persecuted and their religious leaders demonized. Our relationship to our mother Earth drastically changes with the advent of agriculture. No longer was she revered as the sacred goddess, but instead was seen as something to exploit, dominate and domesticate. Agriculture unlinks people from wild nature.
Some speculate that the irrigation needed for mass agricultural economies gave rise to powerful governments that could fund and manage such projects. Oftentimes these states enslaved the people at the empire’s edges and sought to destroy the slaves’ shamanistic cultures and outlawed the use of entheogens. As the men in these cultures continued to consolidate their power, they sought to destroy shamanistic cultures.
THE PHARMACRATIC INQUISITION
The emergence of patriarchy in the Neolithic era led to several related social structural changes which radically altered the role and function that mind-altering plants played in societies. The two most central of these are (1) the State and (2) Patriarchal monotheism (e.g. Christianity). The lethal combination of patriarchal Church and State proved deadly for shamanistic cultures.
During the last thousands years, a massive assault has been launched against the remnants of shamanistic cultures that were still alive. In the 11th century the Christian Church proclaimed heresies throughout Western Europe, and millions of women were burned as witches and midwifes. The medieval Church also went after Jews, Muslims, alchemists, political dissidents, diviners, gays and epileptics. Witches were traditional folk healers who consumed entheogens, practiced ecstatic religion and knew how to ease the pains of childbirth. Witches made brews which contained powerful plant alkaloids, including henbane, wolfsbane, belladonna, and mandrake. The Inquisition was a concerted attack on the use of sacred inebriants.
When the shamanic arts are suppressed, elders do not teach young initiates the sacred knowledge of plant-gods and the proper ways to use these. The ceremonies were first pushed underground, marginalized and hidden from the view of powerful officials. Eventually some were forgotten and lost to history.
For Jonathan Ott, the eminent ethnobotanist, the destruction of the temple at Eleusis by Algaric’s Goths in the fourth century of our era represents the symbolic end of the Entheogenic Age. The rites held annually at Eleusis were the center of a Mystery Religion that lasted two millennia in which initiates imbibed an entheogenic potion after which they saw “the holy”. Ott regards this momentous event as the beginning of the Pharmacratic Inquisition. Ott explains the Christian hatred of the ancient religions:
Since the Christians were promulgating a religion in which the core mystery, the holy sacrament itself, were conspicuous by its absence, later transmogrified by the smoke and mirror of the Doctrine of Transubstantiation into a specious symbol, an inert substance, a placebo, the imposture would be all-to-evident to anyone who had known the blessing of ecstasy, who had access to personal religious experience.
Sacred inebriants were outlawed and the supreme heresy was to presume to have direct contact with the divine, unmediated by the church hierarchy. Ott states that the Catholic Church took “all the religion out of religion, leaving an empty and hollow shell with no intrinsic value or attraction to mankind, which would only be maintained by hectoring, guilt-mongering and plain brute force”.
During the next thousand years, the so-called Dark Ages, the Christian Church launched a series of pogroms and official and unofficial inquisitions against pre-Christian pagan practices and rival faiths, such as Islam, Judaism, Manichaeism and early attempts at science and rationalism. Those dragged to the stake included herbal healers, midwives, alchemists, political dissidents, and anyone else considered deviant by the powers that be. Ott states:
By the advent of the sixteenth century, Europe had been beaten into submission: shamanic ecstasy virtually expunged from the memory of survivors, and the shamanic pharmacopoeia all but forgotten.
The central supporting legal document of the Inquisition was the Malleus Maleficarum, (“A Hammer for the Evil Ones”), a Latin text written in 1484 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Spregner, with an introduction by Pope Innocent VIII. It banned the possession of sacred plants commonly used by midwives, and established proper means of torture and execution of heretics and witches.
In the New World, however, the Age of Entheogens continued. When European conquerors and colonialists arrived on these shores, they encountered their own pagan pasts with people consuming sacred plants without the aid of priests. On June 19, 1620 in Mexico City, the Inquisition declared that the use of entheogens was heretical:
The use of the Herb or Root called Peyote…is a superstitious action and reproved as opposed to the purity and sincerity of our Holy Catholic Faith. We decree that henceforth, no person … may use or use of this said herb, this Peyote, or of the others for said effects no others similar … being warned that doing the contrary, besides incurring said censures and penalties, we will proceed against whoever is rebellious and disobedient, as against persons suspect in the holy Catholic faith.
Given all the Inquisitions, pogroms and repressive actions just mentioned, you will not be surprised to learn that humans lost much of that wholeness and connectedness found among primitive tribal people. The domination of women and of nature warped the human psychology. This contributes to the mass psychology of misery found in traditional societies. Civilized people have eco-cidal tendencies ; we have this unconscious urge to permanently impair the biological viability of our entire planet. Evidence for this is found in the destruction of forests across the globe by various empires that have left these areas deserts.
Because the shamans have been killed and their wisdom traditions forgotten we have a situation in which addiction flourishes across much of the globe. Our innate urges to alter consciousness remain but without knowledge on how to use these substances with sacred intention and in moderate ways, globally drug abuse leads to over 10 million deaths each year. Our current War on Drugs, which began in June 1971 when U.S. Pres. Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” and increased federal funding for drug-control agencies, is essentially an extension of the Pharmacratic Inquisition. Estimates are that in spite of being an absolute failure, these prohibititionist practices have cost our country an estimated one billion dollars.
THE ENTHEOGENC REFORMATION
We are now in an renaissance of entheogenic spirituality. Based on important scholarship and activism across the globe, informed by existing shamanic cultures among indigenous people who use entheogens, it is becoming increasingly clear to some that drugs are not just portals to misery in which hardcore dysfunctional addiction will wreck lives. Instead, the evidence demonstrates that when used correctly drugs can be mystical portals providing peak experiences, profound spiritual encounters and tools for the transformation of individuals and societies. Needless to say, we have a long way to go as entheogenic spirituality is still largely outlawed.
Thomas Roberts argues that entheogens can democratize religion by making mystical experiences available to the masses. A “new stage of religious understanding” is unfolding. We are transitioning from a word-based era to an experience-based era and this change may be as broad and deep as the religious reformation 500 years ago which happened when moveable type and the printing press democratized access to religious texts. To me the most compelling aspect of the current initiatives to change our drug policies is the argument that our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and that entheogens when used correctly are safe and effective.
This brief outline hints at the different forms of drug use in different societies with different modes of production, and relates these to changes in social organization and “mass psychology”. Obviously to undertake such an exercise means speculating about general patterns found in the longue duree of history. I will now elaborate more on the “Shamanic Wisdom Traditions”.
THE SHAMANIC WISDOM TRADITION OF CONTROLLED USE
People who live close to the Earth, attuned to the rhythms of nature and respecting the interdependent web of existence of which we are just a part, often possess vast ecological wisdom. Among our archaic ancestors in forager societies, “plant teachers” provided these people with significant transformative experiences through direct revelations of the sacred. Virtually all of our planet’s ecosystems contain plants with psychedelic potential. Shamans were the original carriers of the accumulated insights of generations on how best to consume these psychotropic substances.
Until recently knowledge about how to use these various plant-teachers had become largely forgotten or lost. The “Shamanic Wisdom Traditions” have been almost destroyed by western civilization and by modern industrial society, which, as outlined above, often outlawed or killed the shamans and outlawed their practices in “pharmacratic inquisitions”. Drug war ideologies instead circulate through the shallow information-laden and consumption-obsessed cultures of modern societies, which often lack any notion of cultivating wisdom at all. Contemporary western culture is monophastic, meaning that our worldview is derived exclusively from waking consciousness. Most other cultures are polyphasic and thus derive their worldview from a variety of states of consciousness, including dreams, contemplative and transpersonal states.
Wisdom is often the result of transformations of self and throughout history and across the globe the use of altered states of consciousness to facilitate such transformations is understood and instituted in diverse cultural practices. Shamanic Wisdom Traditions include collections of insights on the uses of altered states of consciousness to achieve these transformations of self, including through the use of psychedelics. All aspects of entheogenic use might be included in these wisdom traditions—when and how to harvest the plant, which parts to use, how to use them, at what dosage and for how long. Generations of trial and error produced the knowledge that formed the basis of these shamanic wisdom traditions. Shamans knew about what did and what did not work. Bits and pieces of this wisdom accumulated through the generations and became the expertise that shamans mastered. These sacred truths might be passed on through sayings, stories, riddles, songs, and other cultural practices and discourses, etc.
Shamans know how to moderate their consumption of psychotropic plants. This “controlled drug use” is a phenomenon first described by Zinberg (Zinberg 1979; 1982). It refers to the ability of substance users to avoid d gysfunctional addictive patterns of use by using rituals, following strict rules and the use of sanctions. These skills are cultivated through various cultural practices and institutions. Western culture often perpetuates the “myth of addiction” which gives potential substance users the dire choice between total abstinence and hardcore dysfunctional addiction. Some modern researchers are discovering just what a myth that is and are documenting the practices substances users employ to avoid dysfunctional, problematic and compulsive use. It is now touted as a paradigm for sustainable health (van Leeuwen 2016).
Shamans purposefully use these botanical substances with sacred intention in sophisticated and well-crafted rituals. Long before Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary popularized the phrase “set and setting” to capture how the complex interplay of the psychological mindset of the individual (“set”) with aspects of the cultural context of the participants (“setting”) determines the nature of the drug experience, shamans intuited that knowledge in skilled practices tailored for the occasion, the plant and the desired experience.
Shamans know exactly how to cultivate, process and consume entheogenic sacraments in relatively safe and productive ways. Long before recovery specialists devised “Harm Reduction” practices as an alternative to the ubiquitous abstinence-based Twelve Step Programs, shamans devised strategies to reduce the negative consequences of drug use. While many entheogens are now seen as “addictive” and are often abused horribly in modern western cultures, when used correctly and with sacred intention, these psychoactive plants can open up what Aldous Huxley called “the doors of perception”.
Clearly as healers and experts in ecstatic states, shamans have sophisticated knowledge about entheogens. Unfortunately, those of us living in modern industrial societies have lost access to these shamanic wisdom traditions—with deadly consequences. Without this wisdom of the “controlled use” of psychoactive plants, their spiritual potential has been largely forgotten. Yet even without this wisdom, our innate urges to alter consciousness—what I have elsewhere called our “Will to Party,” remains. The results have been deadly. We must recall that among our archaic ancestors in pre-agricultural societies “addiction” was virtually unknown. This is true in spite of the fact that these tribal people had access to most of the same substances used today, including opium, coca, marijuana, etc.
To reclaim something similar to these lost shamanic wisdom traditions around entheogenic consumption would entail gathering knowledge about how to use drugs successfully in sacred ceremonies. Until very recently modern society lacked a living formal tradition of cultivating people who can explore altered states of consciousness and use substances with sacred intention.
THE ENTHEOGENIC EXPERIENCE
Through the process of consuming entheogenic sacraments people can “wake up” to their “True Nature”, gaining liberation and freedom from the limitations of ordinary life. Through these processes we become introduced to the mysteries of Ultimate Reality (Wilber 2018). These events occur in a non-ordinarily state of awareness distinct from our orientations in mundane everyday life. Here I briefly elaborate on the nature of that state.
While non-entheogenic consuming mystics often have involuntary experiences in which similar states of consciousness simply happen to them without warning, shamans purposefully enter these mystical-like states through particular techniques, including entheogenic consumption, drumming, fasting, sleep deprivation, etc. Obviously modern entheogenic-consuming people hoping for a mystical experience also purposefully enter these states.
Chris Letheby (2017) argues that while psychedelics are chemically and neuropharmacologically diverse they are united in their phenomenology. Virtually all psychedelics encounters alter our experiences of sensory experiences, affective experiences, spatial and temporal experiences, somatic experience, thinking or reasoning and our sense of self. Whether mild or intense, these changes can distort, intensify or diminish our thoughts. Some of the thoughts, moods and perceptual changes include: seeing static objects move or warp, emotional extremes of euphoria and terror, sense of insightfulness and understanding, new perspectives on one’s life or the world and metaphysical illusions.
These deep and profound spiritual states of consciousness reveal aspects of our psyches by dissolving the barrier normally restricting access to deeper levels of unconscious material. These visionary experiences invoke a direct experience of Ultimate Reality. Direct experiences of Ultimate Reality are profoundly spiritual events which have the potential to radically transform the individuals who experience them. Ultimate Reality is beyond our cognitive grasp and experiencing it can lead to cognitive breakdown. Ultimate Reality is ineffable and we often cannot describe what we have experienced. As the subjective mind is dissolved and ego is deflated, unconscious material, often archetypal in character, becomes available. This glimpse of the deeper, more accurate view of the mind, of the cosmos and of reality allows individuals to become released from ruling mythologies and ideological perspectives.
Entheogenic experiences are often the most powerful religious experience an individual might have in a lifetime. This is key to them being transformative; The old self dies and a potential new self is beginning to emerge. Many people have striking identification with the “spirit” or their “soul”. The essence of the person emerges and they think about their mission or purpose in life. Ruling mythologies are shattered and those dense and obtuse mystical writings make complete sense without much effort. The old perspectives on the world seem tired and trite. And one may wonder how one had previously unquestionably accepted this conceptual framework.
It is an occasion for the re-thinking of existential questions. These experiences can open up radically transformative possibilities by prompting a re-evaluation of values and a reconsideration of our life course. Our understandings of ourselves, our world and the relationship between the two can change drastically. Many entheogenic enthusiasts argue that to discover our true self we must embark on such a journey of transformation, arguing that when multitudes wake up to their authentic selves, there is a multiplier effect which facilitates the transformation of society. For many these experiences are also a supreme affirmation of life.
As a religious experience the episode is often dream-like in that images predominate with often bizarre juxtapositions, absurd sequences of incongruous themes, and vivid visualizations with intense colors. Of course the nature of the experience is determined by the chemical nature of the substance, the physiology and psychology of the consumer and the cultural context of the consumption. It may seem like a schizophrenic collage of traces of long-forgotten memories, visual hallucinations projected from the deepest recesses of our psyches, phantasmagoric images of otherworldly entities, streams and swirls of color and light, along with those sights the eye might ordinarily perceive but intensified in unexpected ways.
It is an ecstatic encounter with the sacred. The phenomenological features that psychedelics possess that are characteristic of mystical states include: dissolution of the sense of self; a feeling of unity with the cosmos; ineffability, and profound joy. Such mystical experiences can bring forth positive changes such as relieving the existential anxiety and disenchantment so prevalent in contemporary society due to the mass psychology of misery.
Throughout human history these types of experiences have been at the heart of religious life. They comprise the outcome of the sacred technology of shamanism, whether through the consumption of psychotropic plants, or through alternative means of entering an altered state of consciousness. Most of the world’s great religions had founders who had powerful contact with the divine and subsequently became empowered with a message to share with their communities. It seems that all religions have a mystical component, whether the contemplative practices of the Desert Fathers of early Christianity or the ecstatic dancing of Sufis. Other noetic experiences brought forth by entheogenic consumption include: moments of profound insight, glimpses of transcendental realities and epiphanic senses of revelation. The entire event can be a peak experience.
Because we have a mass psychology of misery, in which trauma is epidemic and many have become “lost souls”, entheogenic sacraments often help the person to “find their soul” and change the direction of their life course; With a new-found senses of purpose those who had these types of numinous experiences often find them positive and beneficial.
NEW ENTHEOGENIC WISDOM TRADITIONS
Entheogenic sacraments can be powerful tools for self-transformation and catalysts for expanded consciousness when used correctly. Yet because western society and culture are heavily prohibitionist in orientation we lack the interpretive frameworks needed to support and unify the potential resulting consciousness transformations into our everyday life. As stated above, reclaiming the lost wisdom traditions of our ancestors would provide needed tools to make entheogenic sacraments a safe and productive form of religiosity.
As we have seen, visionary plant medicines enable mystical states of consciousness that contribute to self-discovery and spiritual development. While consciousness enhancing tools such as these are clearly beneficial, there are steps that can be taken to maximize the results from psychedelic experiences and continue to move forward on the path of healing and spiritual evolution. Too often people fall back into old habits and dysfunctional patterns. The insights and wisdom, the lessons and the healings gained from the experience can fade from our memories as we return to the original pre-psychedelic state.
To prepare for an entheogenic journey of transformation there are several steps we can take. We need to do a thorough assessment of our current situation, evaluating honestly all aspects of our life. Often the totality of our life is graphically represented as a pie and the separate components of our lives visualized as distinct pieces of that pie. Included here might be physical, mental, emotional, relationships, community, financial, occupational, familial and spiritual components. We then carefully consider each aspect of our life, bringing it into our consciousness and consider how its development may contribute to our leading a healthy life. This life assessment will allow us to more clearly identify areas that need development, as well as our needs and our challenges. We must become aware of attitudes and beliefs that limit us as well as self-defeating practices. We must consider what we need in order to move forward productively with our lives. Such an honest reality check before we get started can help to ensure that we fully benefit from the entheogenic experience.
In the preparation stage we also gather particular information about our upcoming entheogenic experience and its transformative potential so that we fully understand the journey of psychedelic medicine we are embarking upon. There are general preparation guidelines readily available in books and on the internet that speak to the cautions and considerations which must be understood (I like the ones at trippingly.net. maps.org ). It is crucial to take all the harm reduction steps possible if we are to expand our spiritual consciousness in a safe and responsible way.
“Psychedelic Integration” comes after the actual experience when we reflect on the actual journey, carefully processing our lived experience, contemplating its meaning for us and assimilating it into our everyday lives. We consider how to implement the lessons we’ve learned into our day-to-day habits and routines. We consider new actions we need to take to manifest discovered possibilities. We let go of that which no longer serves us and consciously practice those things we want in our lives.
To integrate is to move into wholeness, finding balance and harmony in our lives. Immediately after the ceremony our neural pathways are ripe for implementing new patterns into our life. We must be mindful of taking the appropriate steps to ground the lessons and incorporate all the discoveries into our daily lives. Thus, both preparation and follow up are very important to maximize the spiritual potential of entheogens. For each person these will look different.
If we are to have an Entheogenic Reformation in which drugs are used with sacred intention to produce profound spiritual experiences we must reclaim something like the Shamanic Wisdom Traditions. In addition, there are current legal obstacles to entheogens being used as sacraments in religious rituals and ceremonies. While our Constitution guarantees “freedom of religion”, only a very small number of entheogenic religions have passed the approval of the Supreme Court.
The good news is that a modern entheogenic wisdom tradition is beginning to emerge. Some of our most experienced psychedelic enthusiasts, including academic researchers, psychotherapists and modern shamanic practitioners are collecting compendiums of time-tested techniques, therapeutic applications and traditional shamanic tools. These manuals for prospective psychonauts are comprehensive and practical guides for the safe and ethical use of entheogens. They weave together insights on how to prepare for the entheogenic journey, information on what the entheogenic journey typically consists of, as well as how to integrate the lessons learned into daily life afterwards. Here I am thinking about the writings of a Timothy Leary (Leary, Metzner and Alpert 1964), (2019) Fadiman (2011), Jim DeKorne (2011), Françoise Bourzat (2019). See also the websites of The Council on Spiritual Practices (csp.org), the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (maps.org), The Third Wave (thirdwave.co) and Erowid.
ENTHEOGENIC TRANSFORMATION AND THE ANTHROPOCENE
We need the transformative potential of entheogenic spirituality right now to help bring about the transition to a sustainable society. The spiritual revolution which must accompany our transition to a new non-carbon-based way of life involves our coming to fully respect all forms of life and our living planet. We need to stop our human-centered thinking and become aware that we are just one aspect of nature.
The human ego often distorts our perceptions and leads us to be blind to things outside our immediate situation. This self-bound thinking is so prevalent that it amounts to a spiritual disease in the modern era. This particularly modern form of egotism –a self-bound and self-centered type of thinking—dominates the populations of western industrial civilization, as well as the ruling classes of most of the world. And it is the root cause of many of our current social ills. This mindset allows people to focus so exclusively on their own needs and situations that they fail to take into account the perspectives of others—both human and other living beings.
To re-kindle their awareness of their spiritual connections to other humans and to other living beings, many modern humans may require a program designed to eradicate their egotism and anthropocentrism. Here I propose the consumption of entheogenic sacraments as a spiritual practice well-suited for the Anthropocene that might help us through the Sustainability Revolution.
The environmental crisis we face demands that we acquire a vastly different worldview. Our current worldview in much of modern industrial civilization is egocentric, anthropocentric (“human centered”), hierarchical, individualistic and materialist. Entheogenic substances often cultivate the very attitudes needed to address this ecological crisis—they deflate the human ego and increase our awareness of our environment. They hold enormous spiritual potential to expand human consciousness.
David Jay Brown, a respected author of books on psychedelics, has called psychedelic use “the biosphere’s decisive response to human patterns of ecological destruction” and has called the DMT-rich, Amazonian brew ayahuasca “the greatest hope for raising ecological awareness on our wayward planet (Brown 2015, p. 4-5). Brown states:
“The very perspective that we need and that we seem to lack as a species—compassion, ecological awareness, empathy, cultural boundary dissolution, creative thought and spiritual connection—appear to be fostered by the use of psychedelic drugs and plants (Brown 2015, p. 3).
IMPORT FOR ADDICTION SCIENCE AND OUR “DRUG PROBLEM”
These discoveries about the spiritual potential of psychedelic drugs when consumed with sacred intention and in controlled ways have major implications for our understandings of drug use, “addiction science” and our policies surrounding our drug problem. Modernity largely rejects entheogenic spirituality and instead instills prohibitionist propaganda which demonizes drug users, criminalizes drug use and even denies the possibility of controlled substance use. To whip up fear and moral panic around substance use as well as to rationalize the harsh sentencing and mistreatment of substance users, establishment elites regularly promote the image of the crazed, violent and amoral substance user so desperate for their next fix that they endlessly engage in heinous and amoral behavior. To advance a spiritual approach to the consumption of psychotropic substances we must eliminate these pervasive ‘“dope fiend mythologies” (Lindesmith 1940) that circulate as common sense in American society.
The extent to which these ugly stereotypes of substance use and substance users have become common sense is so great that even supporters of legislation to legalize marijuana want to distinguish themselves from users of “hard drugs”. Likewise, entheogenic enthusiasts often contrast themselves from people using heroin or methamphetamines. We must remember that it is not the substances or their chemical composition that are the problems but how we humans use them. Recent developments in addiction science suggest that virtually any process can become problematic—consuming a substance, exercise, using the internet, gambling, having sex, falling in love. Likewise, let us recall my definition of entheogen from the beginning of this essay: any substance that when used with sacred intention brings about a spiritual experience. While I use the terms psychedelic, hallucinogen and entheogen interchangeably throughout this essay, entheogens are not just the sacred plants commonly referred to as “hallucinogens”.
By referring to our current understandings of drug use as filled with “propaganda” or labeling it as “drug war ideology” I am not saying that there is no such thing as the problematic use of illegal substances. As we’ve seen, contemporary society has lost the shamanic wisdom of controlled use which enabled our ancestors to use without risk of addiction most of the same substances that today are massive killers. Our “Will to Party” continues to elicit urges to alter consciousness, but without that wisdom of how to use safely the results have been deadly, with hardcore dysfunctional addiction killing many. across the globe.
Most of what is accepted as fact about substance use, even in academia, is based on “Drug War Ideologies” and has little basis in science. Sensational and hyperbolic myths that circulate as common sense often only talk about the negative aspects of drug use and are based solely on the experiences of that 15% of the population who have problems with drugs. The positive aspects of drug use and the experiences of the other 85% of the population that do not have drug problems get ignored.
We need to carefully re-examine everything we think we know about drug use and drug users and evaluate if it is backed by empirical evidence. We must challenge our own commonsensical assumptions bearing in mind that powerful elites have promoted lies and half truths to taint our understandings of drugs. Yes, the drug warriors have lied to us for over a century and most people believe the hype. Most young people have been brainwashed since birth with slogans like “Just say no!”. The famous DARE program, which never worked, often used “facts sheets” that we know now were utter “bullshit”.
Sociologists have documented the discursive strategies and narrative themes found in media constructions of “drug scares” (Lindesmith, Becker, Levine and Reinarman) These cultural myths, promoted by moral entrepreneurs. exaggerate the criminality of the participants so as to scapegoat the “evil drug users” for pre-existing social ills. “Dope fiend mythologies” exaggerate the problems of drug use and ignore the facts about how most people achieve non -problematic substance use. These myths suggest that a single use could take the unsuspecting victim on a journey leading to addiction. This mythology informs prohibitionist cultural discourses that depict all substance use as bad—as a “stage” in the inevitable progression from non-use to addiction. Addiction is portrayed as a “disease” brought on by a lack of self-control. The Addiction Recovery Industry circulates only stories and images of the the most hard core addicts. Rhetorically the worst case scenarios have become the norm and the episodic has become epidemic.
The concept of “tolerance” is the magical theoretical linchpin which buttresses this addiction pseudo-science. The governing assumption, repeated in every textbook on drugs and addiction, is that the addict-to-be must incrementally consume more and more of the substance because subsequent dosages do not have the same desired effect. If that were true 100% of drug users would be hard-core dysfunctional users. In fact, only 15% of substance users become dysfunctional. Humans have two options, according to this prohibitionist propaganda, either remain 100 % abstinent or become a hardcore, dysfunctional addict.
With their focus on dysfunction addiction researchers have paid little attention to non-problematic consumers and the strategies they used to stay moderate. The research literature on substance use rarely discusses non-problematic, successful, recreational use. One would assume from the stories told that using drugs is a miserable activity, without the chance of pleasure or joy. You would never learn that some people, at least according to my informants, are having the time of their lives! Rarely do addiction scientists mention that people who seek altered consciousness tend to be spiritual seekers. Never do we hear of the potential benefits of drugs, such as lowering anxiety, increasing sexual arousal, focusing attention, renewing energy, stimulating conversation, lowering pain, elevating mood.
And while many consumers get lost in cycles of unhealthy consumption, it is never mentioned that many drug users are in some way “self-medicating” to relieve the suffering brought on by the alienation of modernity, including unsatisfying lifestyles and trauma brought on by poor parenting skills. Gabor Mate (2010) found childhood traumas ubiquitous among the alcoholics he interviewed on Vancouver’s skid row.
Modernity exhibits a “mass psychology of misery” (Zerzan) in which a deep emotional malaise has become routine. Apathy, cynicism, alienation, disconnection and depression pervade everyday life. Disenchantment and existential anxiety also mark this spiritual disease. People feel fragmented and have “soul loss”. Overwhelmed by these negative emotional states, drug users are often countercultural resisters who seek to maintain some semblance of authenticity in this consumerist culture. There is a whole social movement and multiple countercultures attempting to live life, get high and not simply conform to the “just say no” regime of social control. Entheogenic researchers’s discovery of the ”controlled use” of drugs in shamanic cultures and the careful crafting of “set and setting” to achieve beneficial outcomes suggests aspects of the educational programs needed to cultivate practices leading to successful substance use. We must end the “war on drugs”. I favor legalizing all substances, greatly increasing drug education and increasing access to high quality medical carq e.
ENTHEOGENS IN DIONYSIAN NATURALISM
Dionysian Naturalism is an emerging religion of nature that is ground in a scientific worldview (thus naturalist) that acknowledges the primal role of shamanic or mystical states of consciousness in religion (thus Dionysian). As a form of Religious Naturalism, it rejects the supernatural, insisting that everything that exists exists in Nature. Nature is regarded as sacred, and the scientific story of the evolution of universe and of life, often called "the Epic of Evolution", is the central organizing myth, cosmology and worldview.
Because human nature, like Nature herself, is complexly ambiguous, containing beauty and ugliness, creative and destructive potentials, both orderly and chaotic possibilities, with both demonic depths and self-transcendence, we need a theology that is Dionysian as well as Apollonian. In contrast to many other forms of Religious Naturalism, which overemphasize the role of logic and reason in human affairs, Dionysian Naturalism attempts to temper those Apollonian concerns with concerns for the sensual, spontaneous, and emotional aspects of human nature. Through mystical experiences, such as those derived through the sacramental use of entheogens, humans make contact with their wildest natures and with wild Nature itself. Entheogenic sacraments can help to “re-wild” religion. This direct experience of Ultimate Reality, the numinous dimension of our world, allows people to "wake up" to their "true nature", gaining liberation and freedom from the limits of ordinary life.
Religious Naturalism is an emergent religious worldview ground in a scientific understanding of reality and regarding Nature as sacred. While in the past it has been a critical movement in many mainstream religions, including Christianity and Judaism, today it is becoming a freestanding religion of Nature, united in its opposition to “supernatural” approaches to religion and based on empirical approaches to reality. For me Religious Naturalism is a Nature Religion which is grounded in a scientific conception of Nature. In insisting that Nature is sacred I acknowledge that it is too complex to be approached by science alone. Because we can only ever experience fragments of our natural world, we need metaphors, models and theories. To understand Nature we need an approach that draws upon all areas of human investigation--art, poetry and philosophy, as well as science.
Religious Naturalists are people who want a religion that is informed by the best of modern science. They are the skeptics and critical thinkers who couldn’t swallow the hocus locus, the woo woo and fantastical excesses of many religions. The dialogue between religion and science has altered and they are increasingly viewed as potentially logically compatible, complementary, and mutually supportive.
Religious Naturalism, in all it emerging versions, rejects the supernatural, insisting that everything that exists exists in Nature. It maintains that science is a good way to understand Nature and that the scientific story of the evolution of the universe and of life (often referred to as “the Epic of Evolution”) is worthy of using as a base for our central organizing myth, cosmology and worldview. Religious Naturalists assert that sacredness is to be found in Nature, not in some other supernatural realm.
Naturalist movements exist in all religions, reacting to the superstitions and irrationality found in our human spiritual yearnings with theological foundations solidly ground in reason and science. These religious naturalists (no caps) tend to be the skeptics within mainstream religions, who want to probe and critique the implausible excesses of their own tradition’s theological thinking, which often veer into the fantastic, the improbable and even the insanely delusional. While these forms of religious naturalism are ancient and ubiquitous, today we are witnessing the birth of Religious Naturalism (with caps) as a separate freestanding religion of nature ground in a scientific worldview, inspired by environmentalism and having a somewhat Pagan ethos.
As a body of spiritual writings, existing Religious Naturalist texts are highly philosophical, creating a sophisticated intellectual system filled with abstract theological thinking, often technical in construction. It is not only Apollonian in style it is Apollonian in content, stressing beliefs over practices. An Apollonian Religion emphasizes reason to an excess and downplays the irrational, the sensual, the emotional and instinctive. Focused on constructing a systemic architecture on solid foundations, it can be philosophically elaborate, inaccessibly intellectual and filled with jargon.
Unlike most forms of Religious Naturalism, Dionysian Naturalism emphasizes the emotions, the passions, the instincts, the wild, the sensual, and the body. Frenzied, ecstatic and pleasurable experiences are highly valued. Importantly, there is a return to the traditional use of altered states of consciousness as a spiritual practice, including those derived from entheogenic (or drug-induced) experiences. Dionysian Naturalism is thus centered on the mystical, the esoteric and the shamanic.
Following Friedrich Nietzsche I accept the impulses and instincts of human beings and celebrate our passions. Moreover, these base instincts are related to sacredness. We must affirm the deepest parts of our animal natures by finally realizing the wholeness of our minds and not be content with a caricature of Enlightenment thinkers’ ideal of what humans should be. Dionysian Naturalism has a religious anthropology stressing what we are, rather than what we should be, one dissolving the gap found in the social sciences between systematic models of utilitarian, calculating, goal-oriented and rule-governed behavior, and our more nuanced, more integral, caring selves.
The scientific studies of entheogens demonstrate that all humans possess the ability to experience profound mystical experiences. These experiences of Ultimate Realty can be interpreted as direct contact with the Divine, which some might call “God”. Whatever the spiritual belief system used to make sense of these experiences, the experiences themselves are powerful and intense mystical experiences. For 72% of those who ingested psilocybin mushrooms mystical-type experiences occurred which had sustained personal and spiritual significance (Pahnke 1963; Doblin 1991; Griffiths et al. 2006, 2008).
While many Americans fear natural plant sacraments and recreational supplements, ,largely because of the prohibitionist propaganda constantly fed us by the dominant culture, use of psychedelics is at the same level that it was in the 1960s (about 17% of Americans or over 30 million citizens). Because of our innate urges to alter consciousness, many Americans become curious about drugs of all types. But because our culture does not support entheogenic consumption, we lack the educational, medical and religious resources to support these people in their attempts to have profound mystical experiences. Not only do we not support the religious use of these drugs, we deny the possibility of drugs having any positive contribution to society.
By contrast, our ancestors in archaic forager societies and existing indigenous peoples often have traditions of entheogenic consumption, in which drugs are used with sacred intention and tightly controlled ways. These traditions are typically lead by shamans who also act as the transmitters of these wisdom traditions. In profound entheogenic rituals people may have experiences in which they discover or retrieve their souls. These people may see drugs as a means to have peak experiences, receive mystical revelations, journey to the Other world for healing purposes, etc. Some of the spiritual highlights of one’s life might be accompanied by entheogenic sacraments.
While entheogens are taboo in most modern cultures and have been outlawed by our prohibitionist regimes, their ubiquity and prominence in other cultures is unquestioned. With controlled use, psychotropic substances can be technologies of consciousness transformation that allow individuals to “wake up” to their authentic identities transcending the limitations of ordinary life and providing a direct introduction to Ultimate Reality. Religion has long been centered on the transformative potential resulting from these type of mystical experiences.“
In order to have a Sustainability Revolution we must develop a true ecological consciousness in which we awaken to our spiritual connections to other living beings and to our planet, re-think the moral and ethical foundations of modern industrial civilization and eliminate the materialist mindset and radical individualism which so often guide our lives. Entheogenic sacraments can radically democratize religion, allowing all practitioners to be mystics with enriched senses of the sacred.
To say that Nature is sacred is to insist that it must be treated with reverence and respect and never violated. It is of utmost importance. It is holy and ultimate. Employing a conception of Nature as sacred can radically alter our relationship to the planet. This conceptualization can be a purposeful act which promotes the ecological consciousness so central to the new worldview we must cultivate to achieve the Sustainability Revolution.
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