“The Tao is nameless
like uncarved wood
As soon as it is carved
there are names
Along the grain”
– Timothy Leary, Psychedelic Prayers
It would surprise most of my newer friends to learn that in my youth I was an enthusiastic supporter of what is today known as plant medicine, although in my circles back then we preferred the more neutral term psychedelics. Indeed, my bookshelves still groan under the weight of the requisite texts by Leary, McKenna, Grof, Shulgin and co. and the tattooed imprint of various illicit molecules still weaves its way up my left arm.
Psychedelics captured my imagination in the early to mid ‘90s and I spent a good number of years proselytising and exploring the outer limits of consciousness with my small family of fellow underground travellers, drifting from festival to festival and working our way through the many pages of Peter Stafford’s seminal Psychedelics Encyclopaedia, all the while figuring out where to situate ourselves in the long and broad arc of the psychedelic counterculture and its myriad histories.
While I travel less often these days, I still feel deeply connected to the psychedelic community and remain an advocate, albeit a more cautious one than I was in my heady teens and twenties, for the benefits these substances hold for treating so many of the physiological, psychological, spiritual and soclal ills of our times. The resurgence of careful research into psychedelic treatment paradigms over the past decade or so fills me with hope and I keenly follow the work of MAPS, The Heffter Institute, Beckley Foundation and other organisations intent on bringing the healing potential of entheogens to the mainstream. At the same time, however, several aspects of what could loosely be termed the second psychedelic revival trouble me, some of them bound up in the term plant medicine itself.
Whereas research Humphrey Osmond’s original hybrid Greek neologism, psyche delos, simply means mind manifesting, the term plant medicine contains both an embedded value judgement that these substances are inherently good and a subtler but equally value-laden appeal to nature. Indeed, appeals to nature or precedent are common in the contemporary plant medicine community. Usually these take the form of positing mythic origins for psychedelic compounds, situating them at – or even, in Mckenna’s stoned ape theory, as responsible for – the dawning of reflective consciousness itself, and as woven through the entire history of human culture, from the Palaeolithic to the Anthropocene.
While there is some fairly strong evidence to support the use of some psychoactive compounds as far back as several thousand years ago, the mythic origins narrative tends to take on a justificatory tone whereby, as Andy Letcher points out in his exceptional study of our historical interactions with psychoactive mushrooms, Shroom, the use of a substance is argued to be legitimate precisely because of its long history of application. The problem here, beyond the evidence being seriously overstated in many instances, is that this approach is inherently conservative, often forming part of a broader Garden of Eden narrative where the old ways are good because they are old and the new ways are bad because we have lost our way. One only has to take a quick glance at the history of human civilization, however, to recognise that there’s nothing inherently good about the ‘old ways’ and that it is often precisely via an enthusiasm for the new and unknown that societies have gained beneficial knowledge and abilities, even if our reach still often exceeds our grasp and even though there is still much of value to be found in the past.
More troubling is the way in which ‘old way’ narratives are used to describe the practices of so-called ‘ancient cultures’ in anthropologically naive ways that essentialise indigenous people and trivialise the sophisticated techniques with which they navigate the contemporary world. Framing indigenous Peruvian ayahuasca-using communities as ‘noble’, ‘enlightened’ or ‘in tune with the patterns of the Earth’ is certainly an improvement on colonial-era views of the Other as backwards and in need of European culture, but while all cultures have knowledge to share, the effect of such framing is often simply a displacement of what Marx described as our alienation from ourselves, each other, our creative capacities and the natural world. Seeking a remedy for this alienation in exoticism and the ill-understood cultural practices of indigenous people elides its direct cause in capitalist social relations that affect all of us, regardless of cultural origin. And, as Jamaica Kincaid reminded us in A Small Place, her profound reflection on exoticism and consumerism, we’re all in this together – once people are no longer oppressed, and once they are no longer noble and exalted masters who have overcome their oppression, they are just humans beings and all that adds up to.
Capitalism has emerged in quite ugly ways within the plant medicine community too. Access to these exploratory tools has become increasingly commodified in recent years – by New Age entrepreneurs who have seen a new gap in the ‘money energy’ market, by investment capitalists who want to patent psychedelic cures and by ‘traditional healers’ charging ayahuasca tourists vast sums of money for often-times dangerous and dubiously-facilitated sessions in the Amazon (although there are of course also many legitimate healers and one can to some extent appreciate the hustle of impoverished Peruvians selling plastic containers of ‘magical brew’ to rich Westerners so they can buy smart shoes and new cellphones).
This commodification is to a large extent at odds with the broadly anti-capitalist ethos of the psychedelic counterculture of the ‘60s, which, as several commentators have recently pointed out, was much more interwoven with the anti-war, civil rights and new Left movements of that same period than is commonly assumed. It has also resulted in a kind of cultural elitism whereby forms of access that are deemed culturally legitimate are increasingly limited to a relatively wealthy, mostly white demographic: think Burning Man, Silicon Valley and Barbrook’s Californian Ideology. In turn, the more lucrative provision of access becomes, the more opportunistic white shamans – sociopaths and sexual predators not uncommon among them – step in to fill the gap with staggeringly expensive San Pedro, psilocybin and ayahuasca sessions facilitated without any relevant psychological training and exposing participants to serious risks. One only needs to observe the penchant for dubious conspiracy theorising among said ‘shamans’ to know that they are not learning the core lessons of critical thinking from their plant medicine.
On this last point, associating critical thinking with psychedelics usage may sound strange to contemporary ears more used to hearing these practices described with terms like ‘self-growth’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘Truth’ and ‘spiritual healing’, but this simply reflects the shift towards essentialism and shallow New Ageism that has come to define a large part of the plant medicine community in the third decade of the 21st century. While this discourse indirectly emerged from the cultural rupture that was the ‘60s, mostly via notable projects like the Esalen Institute, Findhorn and so on (although we should keep in mind that the ‘self-help’ movement is also a reflection of the default narcissistic mode of subjectivity wrought by neoliberalism), the most prominent voices of that period – Leary, Alpert, Metzner, Watts and various other white middle-aged male academics and professionals – promoted psychedelics as a tool for theoretical and practical research and the development of epistemological reflexivity just as often as they spoke of its potential for spiritual development or as a psychotherapeutic adjunct. Reading John Lilly’s seminal work in the philosophy of consciousness expansion Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, for instance, or even some of Terence McKenna’s less bardic musings from the ‘80s and ‘90s, one is struck by the enthusiasm for scientific fields like complex systems theory, particle physics, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, and how much more nuanced they are than the lazily appropriated Western Buddhist platitudes that pass for a worldview in some plant medicine circles.
Of course, this is not the whole story. Apart from the selfless and hugely beneficial work undertaken by some more credible members of the plant healing community, careful scientific work by contemporary researchers, much of it far more rigorous than the patchy treasure trove of first generation psychedelics research papers published between 1940 and 1970, forms a prominent part of today’s psychedelics community, and the underlying drive to achieve mainstream legitimation of these compounds as beneficial psychological and spiritual tools is commendable. However, and while I openly admit that I waver between optimism and cynicism when it comes to the MAPS approach, to the extent that this legitimation unfolds within the ambit of market forces it risks an easy recuperation into the smooth functioning of capitalism and a tacit condoning of its norms. Some may argue that psychedelic mainstreaming will function like a trojan horse but, to mix metaphors, I see it as more of a double-edged sword. There is nothing about these substances that will automatically fix dominant social relations or the damage these cause to the people subjected to them – plenty of toxic, bigoted, small-minded people have taken astonishing amounts of psychedelics – and while significant healing may result, medicalising usage, ostensibly through highly restrictive scheduling, will keep culturally sanctioned usage out of the reach of most people while further condemning and removing support for ‘unsanctioned’ usage.
Although my years as a teenage psychonaut were reckless and wildly naive in many ways, my friends and I always remained cognisant of Leary’s golden rule of set and setting as we shared out the blotter. Too often, nowadays, these crucial factors are reduced to a bit of meditation, a cushion, some culturally appropriative decor and a Hearts of Space soundtrack. The world too, however, as systems thinkers like Gregory Bateson and R.D. Laing reminded us, has its sets and settings and maybe, just maybe, the open set of possibilities represented by these impossibly complex substances – the profound potential they hold to change each of us and all of our broader communities – will only really come into view once we start simultaneously attending to the dominant sets of ideology and the dominant settings of capital and hegemony.
Or, as Leary once observed, while psychedelics allow you to see the ‘game’, the real trick is not to pretend to exist outside of it (after all, there is also a game called ‘seeing the game’ and a game called ‘I’m not playing the game’) but to be both inside and outside it at the same time – playing keenly and with every fibre of our being, for all the stakes of life and love and revolution. Without, of course, forgetting to play.
“Take an apple and slice it down the middle.
A thin red circle surrounds
the gleaming white meat.
In the center is a dark seed
whose function is beyond any of your games.
If you knew how to listen
the seed would hum you a seed-song.”
– Timothy Leary, Psychedelic Prayers
Contributor: Aragorn Eloff
Aragorn Eloff is a long time-time anarchist with a keen interest in different forms of grassroots struggle, ecological activism and animal liberation.
He is also an independent researcher working at the intersection of radical politics and continental philosophy, with a focus on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
He currently works for New Frame, a progressive media non-profit, as a technology manager and occasional writer, and is the co-convener of the biannual South African Deleuze and Guattari Studies Conference. When he is not reading, writing or arguing with strangers on the internet, Aragorn can be found running long distances through natural landscapes.