Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

The psychedelic renaissance

“Progress of human civilization in the area of defining human freedom is not made from the top down. No king, no parliament, no government ever extended to the people more rights than the people insisted upon.”
Terrence McKenna

Fat is bad for you. Eat fatty foods and you’re on the supersonic freight train to cottage-cheese arteries, a heart like a turgid cauliflower and an early brunch with a sanctimonious low-fat yogurt eating grim reaper.

Except that’s not true. Despite fifty years of scaremongering based on some shoddy research, it turns out fat is pretty good for you. Not eating fat is bad for you, because you end up eating ‘low-fat’ foods that are brimming with sugar, or stuffing yourself with carbohydrates. Then you get diabetes, and/or abused by Katie Hopkins on Twitter.

Drugs are bad for you. Take drugs, like LSD or magic mushrooms, and, with eyes like Jihadi-John’s soul, your brain cleaves itself into rice pudding before you fling yourself out of the nearest window, flapping all the way to the pavement.

Except that’s not true either. Despite fifty years of scaremongering based on shoddy research and political alarm, it turns out psychedelics are pretty good for you. Not taking psychedelics is bad for you, because you end up like Pacman chomping endless lines of anti-depressants, or anti-anxiety, or anti-whatever pills. Then you get mentally ill, and/or abused by Katie Hopkins on Twitter.

David Nutt, psychiatrist, neuropsychopharmacologist, and ex-Head of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs (sacked by Gordon Brown for suggesting drugs should be classified according to evidence of the harm they cause, instead of political whim, the bastard), recently stated that the banning of research into psychedelics fifty years ago is worse than the Catholic church’s censorship of Galileo’s work in 1616:

“We banned research on psychedelic drugs for 50 years. In terms of the amount of wasted opportunity, it’s way greater than the banning of the telescope. This is a truly appalling level of censorship; it’s the worst censorship in the history of science. These drugs offer the greatest opportunity we have in mental health.”

Strong words from Nutt, and he’s not alone. Roland Griffiths, Psychopharmacologist, man who couldn’t look more like a head teacher if he’d been crafted on a potter’s wheel by the demiurge, and pioneer of psychedelic research, said (about the recent trials of psychedelics in the palliative care of terminal cancer patients), in a magnificent piece in the New Yorker:

“Can you think of another area of science regarded as so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades? It’s unprecedented in modern science.”

Roland Griffiths

Their views are founded on a simple fact: psychedelics are safe. The Journal of Psychopharmacology recently published a massive study of 30 million adults that showed no link whatsoever between the use of psychedelics and mental-health problems.

The ban can be traced to a seminal incident in 1966, when clandestine necromancer and England football captain Bobby Moore bartered the Earth’s freedom of consciousness with the Devil for an England World Cup win. Later that year, terrified by really happy people everywhere, the US government waved it’s angry fist and made LSD illegal, yanking tight a puritan tourniquet that led to the burgeoning oasis of psychedelic research drying up like a scorched lake bed in Death Valley.

Prior to the ban, the most famous research was done by Walter Pahnke, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now hippy-beardy Ram Dass of ‘Be Here Now’ fame), in the ‘Good Friday’ experiment. On Good Friday 1962, in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, they conducted a double-blind experiment, investigating whether psilocybin (the chemical that puts the magic in mushrooms) would act as a reliable entheogen (entheogen means ‘generating the divine within’).

The experiment was a marvellous success, the double blind being rendered utterly moot as the control group sat around picking their fingernails while those on mushrooms licked the walls and waxed divinical; attesting “God is everywhere!” as they weeped tears of joy into the pulpit. One of the participants, religious scholar Huston Smith, described his experience as “the most powerful cosmic homecoming I have ever experienced.” Twenty five years later the participants maintained their experience was of “a genuine mystical nature”, and one of the high points of their lives.

Fast forward fifty years and the success was repeated by the aforementioned Griffiths in 2006 when he conducted a rigorously controlled version of the experiment. Participants again ranked their experiences as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. He said,

“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’ but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people say they had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.” Roland Griffiths

Hunting for the God Particle

To understand how these experiences manifest, a young British scientist named Roland Carhart-Harris conducted an experiment befitting a Bond villain; stuffing volunteers into MRI machines and injecting them with LSD. While the canned guinea pigs tripped balls (twelve hours thinking you’re a tin of tuna must be tremendous), he mapped their brain activity, and discovered LSD reduced brain activity in one region; the default-mode-network (similar effects have been reported when studying the brains of long-time meditators - like monks.) If the brain consists of cities, the default-mode-network is the traffic streaming between them - when you aren’t absorbed in doing something.

Here’s a little experiment. Stop reading now. Stare out the window. Remember that time you accidentally exposed yourself to a bus load of pensioners? Previously you were being swept along by the flow of the rollicking prose, now you’re racked with self-conscious anxiety contemplating your horrendous self and the looming court case. That’s the old default mode network kicking in. Engaging in a task - like reading this article - slows the traffic down, or switches it to the B roads. Psychedelics seem to close the roads altogether.

With the roads of self-referential cognition deathly quiet, unmediated reality begins to pour in; boundaries between self and world, subject and object, disappear. Given the right circumstances your ego, your identity, what we experience as ‘I’ evaporates. It’s dying without dying, and it’s the classic mystical experience.

Werner Heisenberg was onto something when he said:

“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

Werner Heisenberg

From the mundane to the magical

Psychedelics don’t guarantee a profound mystical experience; legions of festival goers have a tremendous time taking all their clothes off and sprinting around meadows. And psychedelics aren’t the only route to glimpsing enlightenment either. You might be lucky enough that a profound mystical experience occurs spontaneously, as happened to Ekhart Tolle, benevolent zen mole-man of Power of Now fame. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you could pack your bags and head to a monastery to meditate for twenty years. Or, and this is the least advisable option, you could have a stroke (check out Jill Bolte-Taylor’s phenomenal Ted talk on this if you haven’t already).

The mystical experience is impossible to describe without sounding like a pretentious preacher promulgating new-age woo, but it goes something like this: stripped of bodily impediment, pure untethered consciousness floats in an infinite phantasmagoria. Travel through space and time is effortless, limited only by your imagination. The blissful apotheosis - what the Tibetans called the Clear-Light - if reached, is probably the absolute peak human experience, commensurate with transcending duality, becoming the undivided One of mythical lore, the Universe, God; infinite, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent. Stripped of abstraction, emotions like love consume you with raw glory like ecstatic fire. Words lose their meaning. Ineffability renders any description moot, but I’m gonna tell you something: it’s awesome.

See? I sound like a tit.

Terrence McKenna, poet-king of the psychonauts, recognised this when he said, “If the truth can be told so as to be understood, it will be believed.” The difficulty is that it can’t be told, it can only be known through direct, subjective intuition or experience. There’s a Buddhist teaching about the nature of truth that says words are just fingers pointing at the moon; that is, the words are not the moon, or truth itself. This is particularly salient when considering the problems caused by organised religion today. Direct experience has been discounted, and in its place all kind of belief systems have been erected.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Albert Einstein

As far as I know Albert wasn’t off his tits when he said that, but the latter perspective seems like a lovely choice. The problem is, unless you go to school with Harry Potter, miracles do not abound; over time we become jaded to the world. Psychedelics are a catalyst through which we can experience a kind of rebirth, to again see the world with fresh eyes, transmogrifying the mundane into the miraculous, shifting our perception in a way that lingers long after the experience. With those fresh eyes this famous stanza from William Blake’s Augeries of Innocence resonates like a tuning fork on the ball-sack:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

William Blake

What Now?

Psychedelics are the most powerful tool for introspection available to mankind. They have the potential to change your life. They can shine a light on your past & problems so bright and clear and lucid it can feel like you’re Icarus coasting by the Sun. They can tear you down and build you up and fill you with infinite despair or eternal love till it feels like there is nothing else in the Universe. They will show you who you are, and who you want to be and how to bridge that in-between. It’s not guaranteed that they will bless you with a profound, positive experience, but as has been shown by the recent studies; they certainly can.

Despite the therapeutic promise, the chances of buying psychedelics legally in the UK are extremely slim; patent-loving Pharmaceutical companies glare at them with scornful envy as they can’t monopolise and sell them (they are off-patent which basically means unprofitable). Maybe oft-disparaged religion holds they key. In America, a religion known as the UDV, or the ‘Unaio do Vegetal’ (Union of the Plants) has won the right for the congregations of their church to use Ayahuasca for religious purposes. A religion that values direct experiential knowledge over dogmatic bigotry, child-molesting or furious jihad? Sounds good to me.

Perhaps all this mystical waffle has left you cold. In that case, given that there’s a pretty high chance you’re reading this on an Apple product, I’ll leave you with Steve Jobs:

“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important—creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”
Steve Jobs

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