Discretion or promotion? Reporting back from EGA

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting my work at the Entheogenesis Australis (EGA) outdoor psychedelic symposium. For those unaware of EGA:

Entheogenesis Australis is a not-for-profit association that cultivates a supportive environment to foster mature, open discussion about psychoactive plants and chemicals. We seek to explore ways to assess societal impacts and examine the positive applications of such substances.

For those unfamiliar with the term Entheogen, I found the following paragraph to be a useful explanation – from p. 172 of Blom, Jan Dirk. (2010). A dictionary of hallucinations. New York, NY: Springer.

Entheogen

The term entheogen comes from the Greek words en (within), theos (god), and generare (to generate, to bring forth). It translates as ‘becoming divine within’. The term entheogen refers to a hallucinogen or other psychoactive substance believed to occasion a spiritual or mystical experience, similar to those in traditional shamanic rituals. The term entheogen was introduced in or shortly before 1979 by the American classical scholars Carl Anton Paul Ruck (b. 1935) et al. as an alternative for terms such as hallucinogen, phantasticum, eideticum, psychotic, and psychedelic. The reason for coining this neologism was the authors’ dissatisfaction with the usual connotations of the latter terms, especially in contradistinction to the shaman’s striving for “transcedent and beatific states of communion with deity”. As Ruck et al. state, it would be “incongruous to speak of the shaman’s taking a ‘psychedelic’ drug”. Some examples of traditional entheogens are ayahuasca, cannabis, ibogaine, kava, opium, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, salvia, and tobacco. Today a person intentionally employing an entheogen for the purpose of exploring the psyche may be called a psychonaut.

So, I found myself at EGA to be surrounded by fellow psychonauts. I felt as though I was part of a community of broadly like-minded people: while we all came from different perspectives, we shared an interest in and a reverence of psychedelic or entheogenic experiences, whether they be brought on by the ingestion of plants/drugs or through other methods (eg. meditation, yoga, breath work, etc.).

In my everyday life, I can ‘pass as normal’ in the ‘straight’ world. I don’t have dreadlocks or wear a set style of clothing that differentiates me from the run-of-the-mill folk going about their business in Melbourne’s inner city. I like being able to pass through different worlds relatively easily.

But what I realised at EGA was how good it can feel to be among similar others and to be able to express freely your agreement with otherwise taboo topics.

There is a tension, however, which ran throughout EGA and which continues to run within my life. The tension is between discretion and promotion. Being discreet about one’s own use of entheogens (or psychedelics or just ‘drugs’), keeping it hidden, ‘passing as normal in the straight world’, is one way of infiltrating and hopefully, one day, being able to change power structures of the status quo.

But does this work? Can you sustain your opposition when you are constantly suppressing it? Does power corrupt? In a more personal example, can I continue to do the work that is important to me in the face of funding pressures to do work that serves, rather than challenges, the status quo? So far I’m ok, but I know I’ll be faced with this very challenge one day, probably one day soon.

The other option is promotion. Well, perhaps promotion is too strong a word. But if we allow ourselves to think this way, and we did at EGA, why shouldn’t we promote the entheogenic experience to more and more people? With the right set and the right setting, many more people could experience the world and their lives in radically different ways. These changed people could be enough to change the world. This is exactly why the promotion of these experiences is suppressed – if enough people truly understood that their lives could be radically different, the current power structures would be seriously challenged.

The discretion/promotion tension continues for me and for many others who I spoke to at EGA. People deal with it differently. I have this blog and it has my name on it. I explore these ideas publicly and am willing to wear the potential consequences of being honest. I’m not perfect: I wish I could do more. But, really, we must recognise that drug experiences are not all bad. In fact, they aren’t even bad at all. This is the key part that is missing in public debate. (Edit: ‘In fact, they aren’t even bad at all’? This statement could be misinterpreted. Drug use can cause harm, no doubt about that. But I don’t believe it is helpful to demonise the drug itself, when it is how these substances are used and the context within which they are used that combine to make harm or to avoid harm.)

A highlight of EGA was meeting Fire and Earth Erowid, founders of erowid.org. Lovely people, very smart and lots of fun. Fire and Earth’s first presentation on the Heaven and Hell of tripping illustrated that even the worst of the worst tripping experiences are not necessarily all bad. Many people who have a self-described bad trip feel that they have learnt important information about themselves through the experience. Heaven and Hell often occur within the same tripping experiences. Part of what we learn when we take the psychonautic path is how to cope with negative as well as positive emotions and experiences. All of these experiences affect our baseline levels: the possibilities we have for living and being.

Another tension for me at EGA was the choice of term ‘entheogen’ and the discussion of spiritual, religious or shamanic use. To me, it seems somewhat elitist to disregard use of drugs for other reasons, such as just for pleasure, for relaxation, or for inducing an ecstatic experience just because you like feeling good (rather than with spiritual aims). Then I thought more about this issue. Do you need to intentionally seek a spiritual experience to have one? When you take a drug to experience those sensations or for relaxation or for pleasure, you may also have an experience that could be described as spiritual – and this experience may then open your mind to a wider range of possibilities or subjectivities, not just while taking the substance/plant, but also at baseline.

Being in the bush and connecting to the amazing plant life and the earth had a profound effect on me. I felt strongly that listening to my initution was and is critical (A. C. Ping and Margaret Cross also emphasised this point). Through a meditation, yoga and writing workshop, I experienced the significance of feeling the grass under my bare feet – connecting with the land and the spirit. Ingesting plants grown in our surrounding is another way of connecting with the land. We have co-evolved with plants for millenia – this is not new. What is new is the denial of this symbiotic relationship between plants and human (and animal) beings.

As well as presenting my talk on the internet filter and drug websites, I also participated in a panel called ‘Beyond evidence-based drug policy’. There was much discussion but one thing that I take from that panel was the question: do we stick to our authentic message, what we really believe, that drugs/plants are beneficial and our lives are enriched by them… or do we speak within the dominant discourses on drugs so as to be heard, even though it dilutes/distorts our message?

Related to this was Carl Turney’s talk on strategies for drug law reform. Carl said that it is critical that we understand who our target audience actually is – 2 in 81 people are all that matters! These two groups of people are:
1. Pro-entheogen, swing voters, in marginal seats, who currently aren’t letting it affect their voting;
2. Swing voters, in marginal seats, who are unsure about entheogens, and could change their voting after learning more. these are the important people.
If campaigners can move opinion among these two groups, they could have political impact.

I must again thank the wonderful people who made EGA happen. I do truly hope we can do it all again in 2 years time! It was great to meet you all and I hope to stay in touch 🙂

12 thoughts on “Discretion or promotion? Reporting back from EGA”

  1. Promotion, I don’t fly under false colours. Even after many, many years with the Army, I never stopped tell people of the great things plants, fungi and cacti can do for us all. I got into some good deep shit for it, but I held true.

    Reverend Boris Kleiner
    11 Cahill St Aitkenvale
    Townsville Qld 4814

  2. Thanks for your comment Boris. There are definitely people that are either always discrete or always promoting… but I find there is an ongoing tension between the two.

    Your church looks very interesting! Does it have many members?

  3. Wow Monica – you have really captured the paradox that I am consistently living. I too pass very well as a straight person based on my hair style and the cloths that I wear. In fact, at EGA I often wondered if others might think I was a narc!

    I commend you for ‘coming out’ on your blog as a psyhonaut. I would like to go this far also, but fear the ramifications. I have already been forced into line at work as a consequence of expressing some of my beliefs regarding enthoegens. I wish you all the best with your future work as an authentic and transparent ‘drug’ researcher 🙂

  4. Thanks Steve. Though I still see it as a major tension and don’t see my blog post as a removal of that tension. Yes, I commune with psychonauts and feel I am one of a community of people who see the benefits of psychoactive substance use. But what does that really say about me? I’m sure this tension will continue in my life and yours!

    David Marr doesn’t seem to have a problem telling it like it is: http://www.smh.com.au/national/the-great-debate-that-no-ones-talking-about-20111203-1ocag.html

  5. I think that Steve hit the nail on the head. Ultimately, this boils down to one simple issue: FEAR.

    As I have discovered, the penalties for being open and honest about the use of these compounds are quite real and each person must decide what they are prepared to do, what persecution they are prepared to endure and what lines in the sand they will not cross.

    For those who are afraid, someone such as myself could sometimes be seen as another enemy, especially if my actions lead to heightened oppression, rather than the hoped for liberalisation.

    But it seems to me that living in fear is not living at all. It is said that the fearful die 1000 times, while the brave die but once. I honestly believe that we are here not to enjoy meaningless pleasures, but to face meaningful challenges that test and push our limits.

    This year, I have taken inspiration from the protesters in the Middle East. They have so much more to lose, but are prepared to risk everything to stand up in the face of bullying oppression. Nobody is going to shoot, or torture me on account of this issue, so how can I be less courageous than they?

    Steve, I once was asked if I was a narc! It was quite funny.

    I honestly don’t think that you will be able to maintain this tension for very long without serious consequences, both personal and psychological. But hopefully, you won’t have to and a way will open up that will allow you to move forward in a manner that is true to who you are and what you represent.

  6. “But it seems to me that living in fear is not living at all.”
    Yes. So true. And it is really only once the tension is relieved/released that you realise there is an underlying tension in the first place. This is how it was for me at EGA. A revelation that there could be a world where we who have partaken in the use of substances that we believe have enriched our lives can simply exist openly.

    This last two years I have also taken courage from the MENA uprisings and the Occupy movement – if these people are putting their lives on the line, risking everything, they really are fighting for change. How far are we willing to go in a relatively comfortable country like Australia? How important is this aspect of our being? Good questions to ask.

    Another reason why I feel a bit more comfortable talking about this is that at this very moment, I don’t use ‘drugs’ daily, weekly or even monthly. I’m not even drinking much at all at the moment. Despite my current ‘straight’ sensibilities, drug use has permanently shaped who I am and what I stand for. Perhaps I’m a bit like someone who’s gay but is single… in the days when sodomy attracted criminal penalties, being ‘gay’ wasn’t the crime as much as the sexual act associated with it. Drugs are similar: is it a crime to be or to have been a drug user? or is it a crime to possess, cultivate, supply drugs – in the law it is the latter that is the crime.

    There are many people who discuss their past drug use in public. It’s the same old story though – people aren’t able to speak about it positively. Think of the Ben Cousins doco in 2010… really grated with me that he hints at the functionality of drugs for his sporting career, but ends the doco with this statement warning everyone to stay away from drugs. Doesn’t ring true to me.

    I don’t want to glamourise or promote drugs for the sake of it. But I do think it is disingenuous (or dishonest) not to discuss the positives of drug use, and to discuss the fact that currently illegal drugs can be (and are being) used by people who are doing well in the world. And in many cases, those people aren’t doing well ‘despite of drugs’ but also ‘because of them’. I think this is the challenging part for most people. But it’s the truth, in my humble opinion and in my humble experience.

  7. I had a wonderful EGA experience too – and thank you for the David Marr URL

    There is certainly a degree of entheogenesis with recreational use considerable joy with religious use and it both cases the spirit molecules function an ethicogens and moralogens.

    We have not looked at it this way but with hindsight we can see the Counterculture was engaged in putting in the ethics of the Nixon Administration (he proved to be the most corrupt President in 20th century US history so they were on the money) and the hegemonic Military Industrial Complex. One might be forgiven for thinking that News Ltd is a trifle light on in the ethics department and from that quarter the greatest ‘moral panic’ is generated.

    Religaré is a Latin shamanic technical term meaning reconnection. ‘to re tie’ anyone with that intention in the back of the mind is religioning so I guess that is the distinction, but the line is fine.

    Recreational use can be escapist and a ‘bad trip’ a shock, but as we saw with the survey Earth & Fire Erowid did at EGA few there were bothered recognising that rough journeys can be the most enlightening which is certainly the position of religious users.

    Theologian Houston Smith says:
    “If we ask what is the basic difference between the authentic genuine quest for an alternate reality and the recreational drug scene today. The difference is between escaping from life which is the motive in the current scene as opposed to entering more deeply into it, which always requires taking on the added disciplines, and responsibilities, and ideals, that that requires.”

    Richard

  8. Thanks for your post Richard. I like the Houston Smith quote!

    I’m sorry I didn’t attend your EGA presentation after you introduced it to me through VPL! I knew I would miss a few things at EGA – there was so much exciting stuff to do and see. Sounds like I might get the chance to meet you in a week so looking forward to that 🙂

  9. I missed a lot of the formal content at EGA, but enjoyed making and renewing many good connections. Thanks for an excellent reflection on some of the more troubling discussions there Monica. I get cranky when I hear how careful keen experienced professionals have to be, and how difficult it is to enrich the drug policy debate with honest experience. Real careers have been thwarted or stalled 🙁 Even the debate around prohibition is violent and distorting! But this is why I’m confident that we will create a better future together. Often difficult work, but already rewarding.

  10. Thank Erik – I very much agree. I look forward to continuing to engage with this wonderful community so I stay true to my path 🙂

  11. Monica, firstly allow me to appologise for not responding in a more timely fashion… Our church has about 20 people in all different parts of the country, we value the quality of members not quantity.
    Blessed be
    Revrened Boris

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