How hallucinogens can help create a different type of progressive movement
In Graham Hancock’s banned TED talk (that must have got him more views than if it had been allowed), he raised the issue of our “sovereignty of consciousness”. The question as to whether we do, in fact, have sovereignty over our minds is a subject about which there is very little analysis within even the most progressive of media outlets. If you haven’t seen his talk, then I would strongly recommend watching it here. In it, he outlines his personal journey, which brought him into contact with ‘ayahuasca’, an Amazonian hallucinogenic medicine that has been used by shamans in South America throughout the last 4000 years. He discusses how it fundamentally changed his life in a very affirmative and powerful way. During part of the talk, he looks at the fact that the active ingredient (DMT) is a ‘controlled substance’, effectively making it illegal, along with just about every other known hallucinogenic drug. He considers how its criminalisation has been used as part of the “war on consciousness”, as he explains here:
I stand here invoking the hard-won right of freedom of speech, to call for and demand another right to be recognized, and that is the right of adult sovereignty over consciousness. There’s a war on consciousness in our society, and if we as adults are not allowed to make sovereign decisions about what to experience with our own consciousness while doing no harm to others, including the decision to use responsibly ancient and sacred visionary plants, then we cannot claim to be free in any way… It’s useless for our society to go around the world imposing our form of democracy on others while we nourish this rot at the heart of society and we do not allow individual freedom over consciousness.
The biggest intrusion
We see here that the Establishment not only wants to control the way in which we think through its all-pervading corporate-sponsored propaganda, but also insists on demarcating which states of awareness are permitted, and which aren’t. The criminalisation of hallucinogens is one example of how control extends beyond “what” we think into “how” we think. This attack on mental sovereignty also extends into the field of mental health. During the past 20-30 years, we have started to turn natural human emotions into pathologies. Grief becomes Major Depressive Disorder; worrying about being sick is Somatic Symptom Disorder; temper tantrums are instances of Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder; while gluttony is Binge Eating Disorder. Soon, no doubt, almost everyone will have Attention Deficit Disorder. All of these labels given to various forms of mental states effectively enable them to be treated with drugs. Yet, most insidiously, it identifies the spectrum of the human experience as something wrong that needs to be fixed. It tells us not to just accept that when we lose someone we will experience a time of immense grief and sadness. As Graham Hancock points out, our right to simply “feel what we feel” is under attack. Then we see more violent and direct attacks on the state of mind that some people choose reside within. Extensive forced drug doses of very powerful anti-psychotics are used on some citizens, thereby taking away their freedom to choose how they deal with their thoughts. Stories of crazy, knife-wielding schizophrenics “off their meds” mislead the public into thinking this is a safety issue; when, in fact, the rate of violence is the same within the mentally-ill population as it is among those who don’t suffer from any mental affliction. If you read stories from the grass roots consumer activist group “Mad in America”, who have been campaigning to have forced drugging outlawed, you would be horrified to know what gets done to people – right now, in 2014 – supposedly because “it’s for the best”.
The real damage
The twisted irony of the way the world is set up is that, if there really are drugs that ought to be made illegal as a genuine “hazard to people’s health”, then it wouldn’t be hallucinogens at all! In fact, those substances to be banned would be many of the pharmaceutical drugs used in the treatment of mental illness, starting with anti-psychotic medication. The impact of the longer-term use of anti-psychotic drugs includes Tardive Dyskinesia, an irreversible disorder. In addition to this, the long-term use induces a kind of chemical lobotomy and ultimately leads to brain damage . All this should be weighed up against the very dubious claims about their actual benefit. Then there are studies showing that most anti-depressants sold work no better than a placebo; yet unlike a placebo they can have devastating consequences, such as increasing suicidal tendencies and a host of other nasty side-effects. And no-one has any idea what the long-term impact might be for the 5 million American children currently being prescribed the “Amphetamine for the family”, Ritalin. What is evident is that it has nothing to do with what “is” or” isn’t” a health hazard; rather, if a drug contributes to pacifying the population while enriching large corporations, then it will always get the green light.
Stating the obvious
The often-cited reasons for keeping hallucinogens illegal are so flimsy that I could imagine a high school debating team ripping them to shreds in less than five minutes. The crux of their criminalisation is based on them being some kind of “public health hazard”. If that logic were honestly applied, in addition to the pharmaceutical industry many other global corporations would need to stop producing a huge number of other substances, given the colossal negative impact they have on the health of the population at large. In the US, there are 480,000 smoking-related deaths per year, 80,000 alcohol-related deaths, and 22,000 accidental overdoses of opiate painkillers. The mortality rate of other hallucinogens, like hallucinogenic mushrooms, DMT, LSD and mescaline, is zero. It depends on how you classify hallucinogens, of course: if you were to include modern ‘designer drugs’ like MDMA among them, then about the number would be 50-70 deaths per year. However, most of these cases involve the taking of MDMA in combination with other drugs which also have speed-like effects, such as methamphetamine or cocaine.
In the beginning
When we look the historical context of how hallucinogens became illegal, a broader perspective begins to take shape. Under the Nixon administration, the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Act introduced a “scheduling” of drugs, regulated by the FDA, bypassing the normal process of creating a law against them. Marijuana and LSD were put in the same ‘schedule’ as heroin. Other hallucinogenic drugs have since been added to that category, making them illegal, too. The Drug Enforcement Agency was also created under the Nixon administration to execute the war on drugs. To sum things up, psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs are illegal because law enforcement wants to keep social order. We have then been bombarded over the last 40 years by a ceaseless propaganda campaign aimed at creating fear and spreading misinformation, effectively maintaining these drugs’ illegal status, aided and abetted by mainstream society.
Where they supress, we must invest
There are events and actions that established power want to eliminate, that happen to be in the interests of both the Establishment and the public at large, such as a widespread pandemic (they are bad for people and bad for business – unless you are selling the cure, of course!). Yet there also things that the establishment wishes to supress or crush, solely because they see them as threats to their power. We see this in the war against Wikileaks, the criminalisation of whistle-blowers, controlling the internet, and a number of other actions that are sanctioned solely for the purposes of maintaining power in the hands of the powerful. This could be seen very clearly during the build-up to the Scottish referendum. Every manifestation of Establishment power was mobilised, from the mainstream media, the IMF and the US president to former US presidents, banking CEOs and leaders of all the mainstream political parties. With all these forces aggressively ranged against independence, it was hard not to think: “Wow, this is really good sign that something real is happening here; given that all these guys are really desperate for it not to happen!” It’s the same with hallucinogens: the very fact that the Nixon Administration at the time felt so threatened by it should tell you that it has some potential to “awaken” – rather than subdue – the citizenry. The idea of millions of people taking consciousness-altering psychedelics sounds like the musings of a group of stoned teenagers; but the fact is, that if it actually happened, it could have a far-reaching impact on how we act and see the world.
Where we are
The mess the world is in, and the ecocide we are moving towards, are, according to shamans in the Amazon, consequences of the fact that humanity has lost its connection with “spirit”. Without that to anchor us, our egos are let loose to enlarge themselves over and over again. The modern veneration of material wealth, status and power is an expression of people’s egos running rampant. In many communities, the continued use of hallucinogenic medicines helps to keep alive an awareness of the ‘big picture’ and to solidify the understanding that there are far more important things in this world than our egos.
The losing battle
The fight against the malevolent and unjust forces of corporate and state power is not going well. If climate change is a measure of how well we are doing, it is most definitely a fight we are losing. With the fight being lost, the world has been set up according to the rules of bullies and aggressors. These, who are the least among us, lack imagination, creative insight and empathy. The system they have forced us to live within is like a crude sandpit where the only game we are allowed to play is “tyrant and slaves”. Although this model is simplistic, it’s also cunning and menacing as it puts in place a mechanism that is designed to crush dissent and create distractions from any kind of rebellion. Through fear, greed and other temptations or punishments, it continues to hold a vice-grip on how the world operates.
The “left” (or progressive movement) is missing something, meaning we are constantly in the shadow of the ‘big bully’. It’s here that I believe the use of hallucinogenic medicine has the potential to create a very different type of progressive movement: one that isn’t proposing something “better”; rather one that is built on a completely different understanding of the universe and what our purpose in life is.
There have been recent studies showing the successful use of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) in relieving anxiety and the fear of death among terminally ill patients. It makes sense that, if someone’s understanding of death can be so radically transformed for the better, then so too could their understanding of life. If we are to stand any chance of survival in the future, we need a new game plan, as the playbook we are currently working from is not working. The term “paradigm shift” has become so clichéd that it has been rendered almost meaningless, but with the proper use of hallucinogens a genuine paradigm shift is entirely possible. With things being as wretched as they are, only radical solutions will do.
The use of hallucinogens, in the right setting with the right support, can radically alter our experience, both of ourselves and each other. I participated in an ‘ayahuasca’ ceremony for the first time earlier on this year, in what is called a psycho-therapeutic approach. It was without a doubt one of the most profound experiences I have ever had. It is definitely not a ‘fun’ or recreational medicine, as part of the whole experience felt like being wrapped up in Wonder Woman’s ‘lasso of truth’, shoved into the Hall of Mirrors, and then not let out until my tormented cries turned into howl of laughter. To begin with, I was surrounded by people vomiting, weeping, screaming and laughing; and started to wonder: “Man, who are these crazies!” Until after about 30 minutes, that is, when I became one of them! Then comes a certain ‘tipping point’, at which you feel on the point of losing your mind, while plummeting down the rabbit hole…
The medicine works in a powerful way, connecting us to the most loving part of ourselves, and then taking us on a journey into Hades, where we can see everything buried away in the darkness of our shadow. We see and experience very confronting things; memories returned that I didn’t even know I had forgotten. Yet, as confronting and painful much of it was, it was also profoundly healing: we realise that there is nothing inside us to be afraid of, and we learn that we can love our pain instead of running away from it.
Yet one of its most profound aspects was the experience of being connected to everything that is. Reading about “oneness” is one thing; but actually experiencing it, right down to the depth of your cells, is something different altogether. The profundity of that experience left me with an awareness that, despite all the injustices and wrongs in the world, there is a presence that is sentient and loving that underlies everything. I became aware that this presence is not “out there”, but woven into the fabric of everything there is. Knowing this didn’t compel me to passively sit under a tree and meditate, though. Instead, it encouraged me to know that whatever changes are made ‘out there’ to make this world a better place occur within a wider and more mysterious context. It also brought to my awareness a recognition that we might not, in fact, be as limited as we think we are; and that what we do, say, think or feel matters just as much, as in some weird way it is connected to everything else.
Seeing things differently
So, from an activism point of view, it does lessen the force of despair that, at times, seems so hard to keep at bay. Yet, most importantly, it provides the understanding that, for any lasting and significant change to occur, it must arise from a shift of consciousness, personally and collectively. We need to see and experience the world from outside the narrow framework that the established powers aim to keep us in. Bill Hicks understood the full power and upheaval that this kind of awareness could bring:
I realized our true nature is spirit, not body, that we are eternal beings, and God’s love is unconditional ‘n’ there’s nothing we can ever do to change that. It is only our illusion that we are separate from God, or that we are alone. In fact the reality is we are one with God and He loves us. Now, if that isn’t a hazard to this country… Do you see my point? How are we gonna keep building nuclear weapons, you know what I mean? What’s gonna happen to the arms industry when we realize we’re all one. Ha ha ha ha ha! It’s gonna fuck up the economy! The economy that’s fake anyway! Ha ha ha! Which would be a real bummer. You know. You can see why the government’s cracking down…. “Drugs that open your eyes… make you realize how you’re being fucked every day of your life. Those drugs–are against the law.” ~Bill Hicks
I don’t know what a revolution lead by these types of experiences might bring, but what I do know is that actions that are born from a different place evolve in a different way. I don’t think we can defeat the ‘powers that be’, necessarily; but I do believe we can begin to build an alternative beyond the confines of the sandpit we have been put in. I believe ayahuasca and other hallucinogen medicines are making a resurgence that can help people re-connect with a part of themselves that they have lost. For me, it illuminated a kind of light within me that remains lit, long after the experience itself had faded. Of course, though, these insights have to be integrated and incorporated into everyday life: over time, you can feel the full force of habit and conditioning gradually resuming their place in the driver’s seat. Yet, despite that, the light ignited in me has not gone away, and it has become a place I continue to draw strength and hope from.
How the impossible becomes possible
As Graham Hancock so astutely suggested, if every politician were to participate in three ayahuasca ceremonies before entering politics, we would be living in a very different world. I believe these ancient medicines are a key part of how we can start to do things differently: they can help to bring us towards a pivotal change in awareness, and towards true empowerment of the people. And if we are really looking to build a ‘new world’, then it has to start from a new place. Or maybe a better way of describing it would be a place that has never left us, but that has remained hidden for so long (as we have lost our connection with it). If enough people were to regain their connection to the “spirit” that the Amazonian shamans say we have lost, we could open the door to a totally new frontier – a frontier beyond which everything that has seemed impossible, suddenly becomes possible.