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.
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 🙂