Dancing between the tension of opposing forces is a simple way of being that costs nothing.

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

This is the only life I have. It’s not the life of the person I could have been, if I’d made this or that choice. It’s not the life of the person I could be if I change who I am with this or that technique. The only true change comes from a deep acceptance of the present state. This is not a judgement on the present state, how just or unjust it is. This is not about anyone trying to feel it. Sometimes the state could be of immense pain and has to be endured until a release from that pain is possible. Often there are numerous external factors that come into play. The idea that one person can will their state to be different through a technique has become the most favoured sell in the so-called wellness community. That has more to do with the marketing techniques those very people are sold as allowing them the possibility to increase their sales and thus their wellness business. It is a spiritual-materialistic ruse.

I was once invited to a wealth/abundance conference where there were stalls placed around the massive hall, with different people selling different “how to get wealthy” books and schemes. It was multi-level marketing and the product was how to sell the idea of getting rich via media, books, videos, workshops. All it needed was for the buyer to create their own buyers seeking wealth creation and to draw it out over lessons, workshops, books. And that is not to say they do not contain seeds of truth that could teach deep wisdom, it is to say the promises of wealth presented in this medium, whether material, relational or spiritual, were dependent on the individual creating snd sustaining a sense of lack in the customer (seeker of wealth) which is sometimes ruthlessly mined to sell an unreachable goal and to create a successful business for the seller as long as they continue to create new sellers.

We are not all here to be fulfilled by perfection, though that may be a path. That it is sold as the only way to happiness is a false goal which ironically keeps us falling short of our own internal idea of perfection, in our all-too human and imperfect state and in our own unique existence. Our goal, so to speak, is to relinquish all goals, all sense of individual agency, to trust there is a creative intelligence working through us which has its own agency and to seek to align with that creative presence. It is what all religions and spiritual pursuits point towards, however it is dressed in cultural language and practices. You can flow with it or resist it and somewhere between these two forces, the irresistible force and the immovable object, somewhere between this life paradox, there is a dance.

And while you can teach dance techniques, and while you can pay for lessons, ultimately a dance just has to be danced to be truly known. A feeling of the differences between the movement and the static form, noticing how these two states work on each other, and the recognition that resistance and release can be created to that dance by our direction and guiding of that energy that surges through us, that irresistible flow we may call life or even love, or maybe even a love of life when we feel it deeply. In the irony of the individual dancing between their life force and the infinite and eternal totality of being, there is this place to be aware. Not complicated, just obscured by so much.

I get told I’m arrogant when I speak like this. Who are you to speak for us, for our experiences? It may seem that way on the surface and at first glance. But look a little deeper and you’ll see I’m offering you the chance just by a gentle change in perspective you already know how to do, to dispense with this fruitless search as I am seeking to do. Listen to how many have said that money and possessions didn’t bring them happiness, and that sometimes having those things even chased happiness away.

There’s only one way to happiness and that is to recognise it as a passing state and to get out of its way. Stop chasing after it. Stop running away from it. Just let it rest a while when it passes through you. There’s enough suffering already, without adding to it by punishing yourself for not being someone else’s idea of perfection. Be your own version of that imperfect perfection. It all ends the same way anyway, and we will all one day merge into the eternal, cosmic soup of existence.

How do I know? Who knows? Yet if you know, you know. Know we can create at will by aligning ourselves to cosmic will, to recognise its creative intelligence. Know that death is just a doorway as final and as ominous as it may seem. And all ends are beginnings. This is not hard to understand. It does not take money, or talent, or power. It just takes you to love yourself as much as you are taught to love those unobtainable things. You are infinitely more precious than that illusion. More than ever we need to be those people we are rather than those others tell us we need to be. That is true freedom.


Acid Corbynism and the importance of the psychedelic counterculture

The resurgence of scientific research in the use of psychedelic substances to treat a variety of medical conditions has attracted great media interest in what is being dubbed the psychedelic renaissance. More recently, the popular response to the recent spate of articles related to Acid Corbynism suggests that a repoliticisation of the counterculture is in order. But similar to the way medical research has erased or diminished the political ramifications of psychedelic culture in their own research, so recent writings by cultural theorists delving into the ideas spawned from psychedelic counterculture and inspired by the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher‘s fledgling idea of Acid Communism, seem to be either missing the depth of knowledge and importance of that culture over 50 years and as it exists today, or studiously avoiding directly talking about it. Mainstream media also tends to cover only research which falls under the banner of materialist science when it comes to discussions on psychedelics.

This mutual erasure of different components of the research on psychedelics may have serious ramifications in the medical and scientific communities, as well as the political arena, because, as so often happens, those who do not control the narrative have the narrative set for them and a great opportunity will be lost. It is perhaps understandable why these groups have done this; it may well be for political expediency, not to draw unwanted attention from the relevant policymakers and moral cynics and to remain apart from the illegal psychonaut underground culture. Or it may well be a gap in knowledge between specialists in the sciences and the humanities, which converge in some way when discussing the possibilities emerging from the psychedelic counterculture.

Prohibition has a lot to answer for, in helping to create a distorted reality, where the harshest, cheapest, most convenient (to the lawbreaker) versions of drugs are marketed, and where frank and open discussion cannot be brought into the public sphere for fear of association with criminal behaviour (even though the results of such behaviour are now part of western mainstream club culture and society at large and pervades advertising, marketing and social media). A consistent case has been made that ending drug prohibition has to become a central political aim for any resurgent progressive movement, so that both scientific and cultural research can proceed unhindered by the limitations of conservative ideology and religious moralism, to create a politics that enhances society. Are there any radical left theorists arguing for this central aim? The case has never been stronger that ending prohibition would be of huge social benefit.

The present neuroscientific research on the effects of psychedelics on the human brain, being conducted in the UK at Imperial College and Bristol University, has followed on from over two decades of careful research conducted in the United States by a group of scientists and policymakers, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). Their research is now on the threshold of government approved licensing of MDMA to treat trauma.

At Bristol University, MDMA research to treat alcohol addiction has also received government approval. This carries on from years of scientific research that makes a strong case for at the very least the licensing well-known, patent-free, psychoactive compounds to alleviate, and in some cases cure, a variety of medical conditions, from glaucoma, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, anxiety, trauma, and other psychological conditions. Parliament will find it difficult to ignore the issue as the scientific evidence continues to mount.

The counterculture of the 1960s seemed very much a left libertarian one, pro-civil rights, anti-war, pro-feminist, but it was rejected as too “far out”, associated with LSD and new age woo, and a challenge to traditional family values and was eventually consigned to faded and quaint images from the past. MAPS gained credibility among lawmakers and donors with sober suits, sober research and no mention of revolution, political or spiritual. In its place, a pure scientific materialist, methodological perspective was thought necessary in order to seek favour with lawmakers and licensers. And it has been a qualified success.

In the UK, Breaking Convention, a multidisciplinary biennial gathering of scientists, academics and anthropological researchers, which includes many perspectives from materialist, idealist to indigenous, new age and occult, has gained popularity and, in focusing primarily on the scientific and medical findings, has caught the attention of the mainstream press. But until recently there has been little political analysis, as this has been considered too provocative. But the political mood has shifted, and there is a change even here, with diversity panels, looking at ethnic demographics within the culture and issues around racism, gender and sexuality. A deeper political perspective is needed, but where are the cultural theorists of the radical left to analyse this?

Critics are cautious that the scientific research on these substances might accelerate society towards a medicalised, corporatised model, which continues to see mental health as an individual condition, the treatment of which must be subservient to the needs of the market and a set of values where individuals are treated so that they can function better in what is assumed to be a healthy society. Such a view is also runs in conflict with indigenous cultures who use psychoactive plants, which they consider sacred, and which they wish to preserve within their own context of sacramental use and religious belief, which often runs counter to the view of a western materialist, reductionist perspective. These are often contradictory viewpoints which organisations such as MAPS and Beckley struggle to balance in their methodological outlook, aware as they are of their existence.

Travellers from the US and Europe who travel to Central and South America, West Africa and elsewhere to visit indigenous communities to experience sacred rituals with plant medicines are on the increase, which hints that this fills a need missing from the disenchanted modern secular society referred to by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who were prominent members of the Marxist Frankfurt School. A sense of shared values within a community of such qualities as love, compassion and mutual respect, nurtured by the openness to the new encouraged by multicultural societies, sees individual free expression as part of a wider social consciousness, as an antidote to stifling bureaucracy and sterile technocracy of the modern world.

But the idea that notions of peace and love as universal ethical truths, often associated with explorations into psychedelics, also have their shadow, and there has always been a resistance to such ideas. The prevalence of psychedelics and other psychoactive substances in a hypercapitalist culture and refusal to engage in an honest debate about the effects of inequality and privilege on society, has given a space to a narrow understanding of amoral philosophies which have pervaded the both psychedelic and new age communities. These viewpoints challenge long-held assumptions that psychedelics inevitably lead users into a more liberal, open-minded world view. Some of these philosophical outlooks tend towards anti-ideological, anti-moral viewpoints, which superficially can seem to support an acceptance of the social order with no pressure for change, and can even give space for far right ideologies to flourish. It is important that a thorough investigation of these ideas are explored so that psychologically and socially damaging elements do not prevail.

The author and psychedelic historian Alan Piper has investigated in great depth the connection between psychedelia and right-wing and neo-Nazi groups in his paper and talk which he delivered at Breaking Convention entitled, Psychedelics, Fascism, and the Politics of Profane Illumination. Set and setting, in other words one’s prevailing mindset and the environment in which one takes these mind enhancers, is as important as the substance itself to the results of the psychedelic experience. Such psychological and social analysis lends itself to discussion on propaganda and how culture is used to sway the public. This also has roots in a very pragmatic, materialist view of history and the work of Antonio Gramsci and later on the Frankfurt School, which is instructive in giving us a solid base from which to view these developments in psychedelic culture.

The politics of the Italian Marxist theorist and politician, Antonio Gramsci are synonymous with the term cultural hegemony, which can be used to investigate further the effects of propaganda and a consumer, corporate culture on the minds of malleable, internet-obsessed, drug-taking teens susceptible to influence. More recently, a term which was used by the Frankfurt School to describe the use of culture to impose capitalist ideas into the public consciousness, Cultural Marxism, has become the go-to put-down by conservatives, who use it to describe those political philosophers and thinkers of the left who are seeking a way to combat ruling class hegemonic forces, with their own ability to deconstruct ideas and to recognise how so much of what we take as given is mediated and often created by social forces. The idea that gender is a social construct seems particularly provocative to men of a certain outlook.

This has seeped into public consciousness on social media, with the prominent Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, who has gained notoriety and a huge following for refusing to use impersonal pronouns to describe transgender students. He has used this notoriety as a springboard to launch vicious attacks on a common enemy of the right, promoted by various conservative writers, that a cabal of Marxist-Postmodernist academics (an easy, but mistaken conflation to make to those unfamiliar with the nuances and differences) is infiltrating social institutions in the west to undermine the “traditional” nuclear family and traditional Judeo-Christian values. Peterson has recently joined forces with the controversial academic and critic of modern feminism, Camille Paglia, and the effect that the two will have on this debate bears much closer examination. Where is the cultural analysis from the radical left here? This is urgently needed.

Angela Nagle covers this forensically in her book, Kill All Normies, going into great detail on how Reddit and 4Chan alt-groups became breeding grounds for this kind of populist anti-left narrative, where racism, homophobia and misogyny were common attitudes marked down as “anti-PC free speech”, and used to shut down intelligent debates on white supremacist patriarchy, and issues around sexuality and gender as a social construct. Anyone offering a radical left, or even progressive liberal, perspective was immediately cast off as an SJW (social justice warrior), part of the “regressive left”, men who supported feminism referred to as “cucks” and the very notion of positive social change seen as a Stalinist plot.

Nagle identified a repurposing  by the right of a culture of transgression which was a central part of the 60s counterculture, often defined as permissiveness or hedonism, which was once seen as a threat to traditional Christian values. This transgressiveness was used by young, white males as a form to attack institutions which became associated with limits to personal libertarianism, with neoliberalism becoming synonymous with left liberal perspectives, rather than as a continuation of the financial corporate capitalist model. This anti-state, anti-government, anti-liberal attitude became the de facto anarcho-capitalist worldview of the alt-right and grew in popularity.

In the 1960s, the authority of the church was successfully challenged. The decriminalisation of homosexuality and the legalisation of abortion, were hard-fought battles, with only qualified victories, which did not end the war and which recent events show need to be fought again. In the 1980s and 90s, there was an initial male response to increasing women’s rights and gay rights, which in the UK became known as the Loaded generation. A generation of young could once again objectify women, this time “ironically“, simultaneously embracing the consumerist, commodified culture in traditional masculine ways. It was a way for men who objected to the changing nature of male and female roles to claw back some cultural ground, which they felt was being lost, and once again it suited the dominant capitalist mindset. That can be seen as the dry run to a far-less ironic, much more aggressive, push back from so-called men’s rights activists, gamers and openly neo-nazi ideas that have multiplied under this banner more recently.

Mark Fisher wrote in detail about the mental health crisis, from personal experience but also from his own understanding of class politics. He had read some of the work of RD Laing and the anti-psychiatrist movement and David Smail the noted clinical psychologist who argued that modern psychiatry was obsessed with individual responsibility for one’s mental health condition, rather than situating such mental distress within a social context and seeking to address the root of the problems. It is necessary to challenge the old-fashioned belief that mental health is situated solely with the individual, or indeed that the use of psychedelics will destroy the fabric of society. The opposite is the case, and this is backed by solid science.

The present crisis in the NHS is down to a combination of bad management, exploitative deals with private companies, but also a model of health which is still fixed on a materialist perspective and groups exists already which challenge this model. This is the juncture where it is vital that radical left theorists claim cultural ground and make the case both to policymakers and scientists, that psychedelic culture and the psychedelics themselves, are an opportunity to look much deeper into the social and economic conditions which give rise to the growing epidemic of stress and anxiety, as well as treating these conditions effectively with simple, patent-free substances with fewer side-effects and less dependency, and challenging fixed definitions of mental health.

Psychedelic culture has already paved the way in so many areas of human experience, and scientists and neuroscientists are now beginning to provide a basis for the understanding of the medical and social benefit these substances can provide. It is time also that cultural theorists do the same. While the UK has Brexit to contend with and while the US struggles to cope with the increasingly autocratic behaviour of its president, it is time for those who are interested in integrating societies, science and health, to look to psychedelics, and to the theories and pragmatic evidence of collectivised models of behaviour, to create spaces for a multitude of innovative psychedelic-inspired ideas to flourish. Engaging the public honestly and courageously, to promote and enact the creation of a better world is possible and achievable, and must now be a priority.

No man is an island… and yet

As I understand it, we are a collection of continually shifting identities, modifying others and being modified. In addition, we are continually modified by our environment and in turn continually modifying our environment. A continual dance between duality and oneness, between being and nothingness and perceptions of reality. We are a continual succession of interplays between our own internal and external versions of ourselves, and others’ versions of themselves and of us. While the suggestion that identity is fixed is absurd and easily disprovable, equally to insist on the absence of identity, to seek to erase its existence by ideology or philosophy, is as easily challenged by our persistent rebelliousness to coercion whether by state or by the actions of others.
Even in the most transcendent egoless experience, whether through sudden moments of crisis, intense meditative experience, or through altered states induced by external means, all of which can change us fundamentally and with far-reaching consequences, we return to some sense of an identity, an “I”, as illusory as it might be in a metaphysical or even scientific sense. To deny this expression of an individual will as a healthy phenomenon, to deny our sense of personal agency and autonomy by insisting on some nihilistic absence, can very easily present itself as sociopathic and can lead to all sorts of projections and damaging behaviours to onself and to others, depending on the person’s own personal power and ability to effect change in their environment.
At the other end of the spectrum of being, for the individual to be placed under the will of an ideology, which asks the person to subsume itself to a greater material body such as the party or the state, which is in reality only a a substitute for the authority once held by God, is also deeply problematic. The European Enlightenment, if it was anything, was an attempt to do away with the need for a higher authority in the form of a metaphysical being administered by a religious authority and to liberate the individual.
The advancement made by reason, was to recognise that the individual could find freedom and autonomy by connecting first to that authority as something greater within, trusting in one’s own intuition and experience, with no need for an intermediary. This was truly liberating and put man at the centre of the universe and also allowed for these liberated individuals to collaborate from the ground up. It was anti-hierarchical, and it led to the growth of commerce and trade and a challenge to monarchical and clerical power. This presented other problems, those connected to industrialisation and colonialism, but the liberating power of the individual has persisted throughout history and been taken up willingly throughout the globe running parallel to imperialist enterprises.  This materialist view, this extinguishing of the soul, had in turn its more spiritual component in the form of nondualistic eastern philosophies, which also ironically led to solipsistic thinking, which denied external reality and suffering and even in its most virulent form, a denial of the one’s personal existence and free will.
Further, this secular liberalism also led to a reaction, or rather a development, which was to subsume the free agency of the personal will to a greater cause, that of independently existing materialist forces. Eventually this led to the creation of ideologies, such as Marxism and Atheist Materialism, which sought to impose its supposedly objective idea of the greater good onto the individual, which paradoxically was not supposed to exist, but was nevertheless coerced into subsuming itself to the greater good of the state or to scientific materialist authority. In this sense, both Nazism and Stalinism, come from the same fundamental error of thinking, which sees the individual only existing to serve the state, emerging as one ideology imposed on its people. This is the fundamental mistake of historical materialism, which led and can only lead inevitably to the gulags and the killing fields, to the concentration camps, to state coercion, psychological suffering and environmental destruction and madness.
The only politics that can work that will unite people is one that recognises humanity as an interdependent set of identities, which encourages personal agency, and sees one’s personal identity, as illusory as it may be, in a greater cosmic sense, situated in an environment and universe which is itself alive and in continual communication, which acknowledges a responsibility to that interplay. No one can have the complete picture. The picture, to be a healthy reflection of the individual and collective will, must be continually shifting and being modified, in a great, big, joyful dance. The aim must surely be to encourage personal sovereignty and autonomy as well as interdependence with other autonomous beings and a deep sense of respect and reverence for oneself and one’s environment. No one above, no one below, no god, no masters, and no coerced obedience to any state apparatus, which must exist, if at all, only to serve the people, to mediate in the lightest and most benign way possible disputes between individuals and groups, and whose existence must only serve the will of the collective, itself a collection of continually shifting patterns, known as human beings.

Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design – Stefan Geyer: A Review

Zen in the Art of Permaculture Design, by Stefan Geyer, is really a book about a way of living and interacting with our environment which struggles to fit into linear descriptions in our commodified, corporatised culture, which seems to demand such binary descriptions. The neat device used by the author to better help understand permaculture, which is his passion and his way of life, is to introduce a second hard-to-define philosophy, Zen, as a way of explaining the first. It might seem counter-intuitive, but it works very well in using each ti reflect the other, and it allows a broader perspective of both philosophies.

Ask nine different people working in permaculture to define what permaculture is, and you will nine different definitions, which can be infuriating to those who rely on rational, easy to understand ideas that can be quickly implemented. Working with nature, not wasting what you have, learning to plant and grow seeds by harmonising seemingly separate forces, are some of the basic ideas, but often the message comes from experiential, hands-on learning and a deeper listening to nature, which is not common currency in urban culture; a certain way of observing and listening to the messages coming in from our surroundings, is unique to each individual. This can be confusing to those who want a catch-all description, one that reads like an instruction manual.

This is a short book in terms of words and chapters, and there are basic descriptions about what permaculture is for the beginner. It is written in simple and poetic language, standing on its own as an inspiring read, especially when poetry and stories from the Zen tradition are brought in to give deeper explanations of how to trust our intuition. But the themes and ideas go deeper than the shortness of the book would suggest, so much so that in an agitated state as I was towards the end of last year, with so much going on for me on an emotional level, I found it very difficult to settle into reading the book and taking in the message of slowing down to listen more to what messages are coming from inside us as a response to our immediate surroundings. Yet, each time I sat down to read, I felt the resonance of the words and how this could serve as a set of core principles to those who wish to pursue a way of life not tied into the increasingly fraught, technology driven and financially dependent and disposable culture we have become so used to.

Stefan Geyer has been involved in Permaculture Design for many years. He lives in the heart of London where he works in hotel management and combines this by organising an annual gathering of Permaculture practitioners and thinkers in a festival held in central London every July, The London Permaculture Festival. His idea of finding the wisdom and poetry of the Zen and Taoist philosophies as a reflection of the “Way of Permaculture”, is itself poetic. It understands that permaculture is about more than just growing edible vegetables and herbs and collecting water. It is a philosophy about slowing down from the technological chatter in order to tune into the natural rhythms of nature so that we can move from that more centred and authentic space. This is a book to read if you grow food, or have some kind of garden you tend to, or if you have any interest in living a life closer to nature and in creating resilient communities. But it is also one to ponder for those wishing to embark on a lifestyle change, for those wanting to learn how to manage the many conflicting inputs and to find a grounded method for living life.

Planetman – Love Rebel: A Review

Planetman’s latest album Love Rebel, a collection of nine songs delivered in a warm, upbeat roots reggae style, with some gypsy and ska influences, is the embodiment of the life and work of a musician who lives by the messages in his songs. Planet – as he likes to be known – was born Adir Tov in Israel, of Yemeni Jewish ancestry, with strong connections to pre-Israel Palestine. He refused to serve with the Israeli army and was sent to jail several times for his principles, but moved to Europe, where via Amsterdam and club/festival culture, he soaked up many different musical influences, before finding his niche, in the positive one love philosophy that he expresses in his music in venues such as Passing Clouds, where his parties and gatherings were legendary in their time for bringing many different musical and cultural influences together.

In my time in London, during the Peace Not War years between 2003-2009, mixing in and out of the various anti-war collectives and with different activists, I was introduced to Passing Clouds, the music and arts venue just off Dalston Road, organised by Eleanor Wilson, who had a deep understanding of how political activism and music combine, who was central to bringing such an eclectic mix of musicians and artists from the streets rather than from an agency. The venue has featured musical styles from around the world with a strong African and Caribbean influence, mixed with urban dubsters, grizzly and sparky socialist and anarchist punks and gypsy folk in acoustic and electric combinations. With nights of films and discussion from a variety of alternative political frameworks, including Permaculture and Transition events, to young trendies looking for an eclectic night out, there was always something for every one here, as long as you are open-minded and willing to share.

Passing Clouds had politics and a rootsy culture at the heart of its community project and it was evident in how they embraced whoever was local and wanted to play music and get involved that they were living their ideals in a very grounded and practical way. Sadly, the venue was taken over by a new landlord and the Passing Clouds crew are currently seeking out a new venue, unless the old venue becomes available again. Central to the music gatherings over the years as been Planetman and his band, the Internationalz. This album gives a flavour of some of those special Passing Clouds nights.

The album deals with themes of love as a spiritual and unifying force and the true rebelliousness of refusing to submit to a system that crushes humanity in its coldness and selfishness. The tone is uplifting and embracing and the style will be familiar to anyone who likes the music, words and singing of Bob Marley. Planet’s voice and inflections are very similar to the world famous artist. To my ears there’s a smoother tone to Planet’s singing, but the message is an extension of that same philosophy, a recognition of what we are needing to move from the many crises we face into a new human and societal connection. The album starts and ends with Love Rebel as the title, but whereas the opening track is a traditional reggae sound, the final track, Love Rebel, Fly, has a more psychedelic flavour, a spacey way to end the album, as if the album itself is akin to the artist releasing a dove of peace and hope into the search for an island in the sun.

This is an album to be embraced and sustained by, an inspiration to those who may be dropping their heads at the seeming hopelessness of the political landscape, a collection of songs that conveys the spirit of the Passing Clouds community, the spirit of the rebel artists, musicians and poets as well as expressions of the indigenous voices that have shared and continue to share their stories and their visions of a brighter world where courage in the face of oppression can be both radical and loving. In short, this is the life that Planetman lives and shares and one which I feel is needed more than ever in these interesting times. I would recommend this music to anyone with a beating heart!

Psychedelic Science 2017: a political perspective

It was a beautiful experience in itself to attend the Psychedelic Science 2017 conference held in Oakland, California, organised by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in conjunction with the UK’s version, the Beckley Foundation. Over 2,500 attendees of all ages attended, numerous scientific talks were presented on the latest research into a range of psychotropic substances, which all happened in an impressive venue; various stalls and psychedelic or “visionary” art, music and psychotropic superfoods were offered for our enjoyment; workshops, films and discussions on the possibilities of ending the brutal drug war that has claimed so many lives and incarcerated so many otherwise law-abiding people were presented in further rooms across the Marriot Hotel complex were a constant source of education and discussion and inspiration.

But if one is willing to notice it (and one must), the demographic of such events may be cause for concern. Yes, there are people from different ethnic groups, but not many, the vast majority seeming to come from the usual white, middle class, affluent groupings you see also in new age and personal development fields, as well as the sober, suited middle-aged white men you might see in any medical practice or perhaps pharmaceutical company board room. The price of a three-day festival running into several hundred dollars makes the accessibility for those from a lower economic status a difficult prospect, and perhaps there are other reasons too. There was talk towards the end about the possibility of extending scholarship funding to allow greater access, but a deeper and more frank discussion has to be developed about this exclusivity and what it means politically in the research and the future strategy for an effective social campaign against prohibition and the devastating effect it has on society.

MAPS makes no secret of the fact that in the 1980s their policy committee specifically distanced the organisation from the countercultural element of the psychedelic hippy culture of the 1960s and 70s, the likes of Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna. In one sense this made perfect sense and has no doubt been of help in gaining respectability among the very policy makers and medical professionals they need to convince. Of course, these bastions of the psychedelic underground still draw a sizeable portion of the largely affluent young, white crowd, who ride on the back of that intellectual and spiritual rebelliousness.

But visionary art selling for $28,000 a pop may leave some wondering whether this is all just an elitist exercise in pseudo-radical posturing. That MAPS is looking for at least $25 million in funding for the third phase of their FDA-approved MDMA research, may leave one wondering just what deals need to be made either consciously or unconsciously with corporate finance in order for medically approved prescription psychedelics to become part of the psychiatrist’s choice toolbox. Psychedelic remedies to treat the damage that our present neoliberal system inflicts on individuals, and by extension our society and planet, will hardly be lessened much less eradicated were approval to be gained.

But there is cause for optimism, which I found in the midst of this a festival mainly centred in white male privilege and reductionist scientific cheerleading. One of the talks I attended was with a panel of speakers all involved in some way with marginalised communities of colour and indigenous groups, who raised concerns about diversity and representation at these groups, as well as key issues regarding cultural appropriation of the increasingly faddish trend among westerners in using Ayahuasca, Peyote and San Pedro among other sacred plants, either in authentic, semi authentic or increasingly westernised pseudo ceremonies. Additionally, scientists are also researching the neurological effects of these plants, and are increasingly isolating the active chemicals in these substances for further study. The variety of research is phenomenal and many would agree it is needed, but is the right respect being shown to the cultural heritage around these concoctions or indeed of the communities whose habitat is being destroyed in ever-greater ways by our corporate western culture?

What are we moving towards? Is this just a space for the new elite? How can the rest of us bring our contribution and show due respect to other cultures while keeping our own authenticity? How can we look at the drug war, which disproportionately affects people of colour and those of lower socioeconomic status, in a light that allows for prohibition to be seen in the context of draconian laws, which disproportionately affects people outside the hippy demographic? What are the festival-goers and Burners and the like actually doing to agitate for constructive change? Are we stuck in psychedelic spiritual bypassing, thinking our psychedelic experiences, our visionary art, our funky moulded leather “tribal” wear selling at $250 a belt or $700 a calf-skin jacket, is going to create a “psychedelic tribe” that will bring in a new world of enlightened beings who will bring about utopia?

And what of conventional psychiatry, which is built on a discrete scientific and medical model, which sees the individual as separate in space and time from their surroundings. Mental anxiety and anguish is often treated on a case-by-case basis, rather than recognised as the product of collective anxiety emerging from a set of human and environmental relationships existing within a fundamentally dysfunctional society. How do we recognise that governmental prohibition of certain drugs is rooted in that same dysfunction and how do we move to a new perspective? That will be explored in part two.

The compliance of science: the depoliticisation of psychedelics in mainstream culture


tacitusScientific materialism is the driving force of corporate capitalism and neocolonialism. Psychedelic political and spiritual culture stands opposed to this and by its nature is a challenge to this destructive ideology

Scientific materialism is the dominant philosophy of the modern age, and has been for over a century. The combination of science and technology as a tool, and capitalism and colonialism as the ideology driving its progress, has led to a widespread transformation of habitat and global indigenous communities. Alongside this essentially atheistic materialism, liberal secularism, originally a religiously motivated ideology that came out of the European Enlightenment, attempted to mitigate the destructive aspects of this transformation, but time and again has been cast aside, as corporate profit and nationalism remain a brutal mental and emotional driving force that has been effective in redirecting popular dissent at confrontation and crisis points, preserving the authority of establishment elites and institutions.

In the midst of these dominant ideologies, much progress has been made on a surface level, in saving and prolonging life, engineering fuel and communication pathways, journeying to other planets, a deeper understanding of the composition of the natural world, and deeper still into the very substance of matter.

Liberal secularism has also broken ties with church and state and allowed human autonomy in specific areas of life. But as ecological and social breakdown rises, and the limits of corporate capitalism are exposed, racism, sexism and bigotry have intensified. Psychological anxieties seem also to be on the increase, and extreme militant religious fundamentalism has become the focal resistance to corporate capitalism and materialism in its willingness to use violence as a reaction to the violence inherent in the system. The fundamental nature of being remains elusive for the materialists and the venom with which they attack competing ideological worldviews, particularly those of a religious or spiritual nature, is very likely to be psychologically connected to this frustration at the limits of physicalism to understand the nature of consciousness and a denial of the connection between reductionism and globalisation.

The development of psychedelics over the past 50 years offered a bridge between the physical and idealistic perception of reality, between science and religion itself, and it seemed for a time that ideas and philosophies were converging, and a political revolution was somehow linked to this, nowhere more evident than in the late-1960s and again in the late-1980s where alternative communities challenged the dominant modes of thought. But the political establishment, a mixture of traditional religious and atheistic worldviews, joined forces each time against a set of ideas that demonstrated nonconformist even revolutionary attitudes, threatening those who sought to retain control of the narrative, of the ultimate power to define reality. So laws were tightened, rebellious individuals and groups were militantly policed and imprisoned, and idealistic political resistance was attacked by all means deemed necessary.

But a new development began to take shape in the 1990s, as scientists consciously distanced themselves from the political elements connected to psychedelics and began to focus on neurochemistry and developing brain-imaging technology, which demonstrated the positive benefits of certain psychedelic substances to treat a variety of physical and psychological conditions causing distress in individuals. While alternative and more psychospiritual treatments continued, the dominant worldview found it much easier to accept this less political, more physicalist model, and the scientists focusing on this aspect seem to have become the spokespeople for the resurgence of psychedelics in the mainstream media with calls for medical licensing rather than an outright end to prohibition. Now it seems that the very notions of spirituality, religion, shamanism, even spiritual political views once intimately bound with psychedelic use, are being marginalised in favour of this sanitised, corporate friendly model of psychedelic health.

The risks with taking the reductionist, scientific approach is that at the very moment when a libertarian culture, with its open-hearted view of spirituality, sexuality and multiculturalism, is being attacked in quite vicious ways by the ascendancy of post-fascist ideology, psychedelic science is playing handmaiden to these forces by remaining apolitical and hoping these repressive forces will grant some licensing to allow the doctors to prescribe psychedelics as medical treatment, while researching the effects of these substances on brain chemistry. The possibility that these substances could provide the revolutionary perspective that might challenge the evidently repressive forces, perhaps even offer insight that might aid activists and campaigners in looking for alternative methods of challenging these tyrannical structures, is being pushed aside for a different kind of political expediency, one that is compliant to the forces of repression.

Can psychedelic, political and spiritual activists who want a complete end to prohibition find common ground with scientists and politicians? Can an integrated worldview to face the ecological and social challenges of the 21st century be created? Or is it time to recognise that legalisation of psychedelic substances will never be granted in this present system and to recognise the nature of the challenge and to find common cause with activists rather than government-approved scientists? The cognitive freedom to explore consciousness and create spontaneous recreational spaces, including non-materialist, non-rational, even post-factual perspectives, must be fearlessly expressed, not only in the face of the political establishment, but also the scientific establishment, and the reductionist ideology which has become prominent in the field of psychedelic research must be challenged. The transformation of the social and political order, which is visibly sinking into totalitarianism as it destroys the planet and any semblance of civilisation and humanity, no longer allows for politeness in these matters.

Stuck inside of Glastonbury with the Facebook blues again

TypewriterI was up all night trying to find a way to explain what I’m feeling, to try to find a way to salve my conscience, to make sense of the images that keep flashing before me on the radiating screen so many of us have become so accustomed to feeding on, images of death and destruction, of fear and frustration, of warring factions and intractable discussions that seem to lead nowhere. But my sense of self-preservation is trying just as hard to prevent me from speaking these words, which seem to form deep in the back of my brain, screaming for their moment in the limelight, for just one chance to set the record straight and call this foolishness out. Because I don’t want to be the one to face the fire. I don’t want to be the one to take the blame. I’d rather some hack who gets paid to work this shit out could take up the slack, to break the chain of conformity that keeps us held back in this blind game we all play. Yet I can’t hold back forever. I can’t let these emotions stagnate and fester within me. I’ve got to get some peace of mind, so I’m spilling the words out onto the page, just to get it out there so that maybe someone else might be able to relate.

It gets stranger by the second, with every link to every news story, from any kind of website, whether respected or not, it almost doesn’t matter anymore what’s really true, as more and more it seems what’s true is what you believe to be true, facts and sources seem to no longer matter to the multitude, if they ever really did. We used to trust experts, at least they had earned that right. But many experts betrayed that trust, so now many ignore them, and place their faith on people with no schooling, who would betray us just as readily, but don’t even have the skills to check their sources. I never reckoned on it getting this confusing, and I’m further than ever from a solution. Thoughts and connections arise inside of me, but from the spark in my brain to the tip of the tongue, something seems to get lost in that gap between inspiration and realisation. And I’m at a loss what to do next. I need to find a way to get through this sense of doubt. I need to find a resolution, to the endless recording playing out inside of me, to tell a story that makes sense to me.

But the more information that gets thrown at me, the more I willingly digest this diet of unchecked facts vomiting out of social media every day, the less the world makes sense to me. In this state of confusion, with the knowledge that terrible things go on in the world, that the modern world’s wealth was made at the expense of many other civilisations, this terrible knowledge breeds like weeds strangling my identity, smothering my sense of self. Webs of deceit wrap around me, and I feel false in saying anything with any certainty. Who am I to hold a point of view? What do I know? So I hold my tongue for fear of shame, too afraid to speak, lest I make a statement or give an opinion which ends up proving itself wrong at some future date, which could be near or far but would hang around me like a noose. I thought I had it clear, how it all works, but I can’t see the pattern anymore. It all seems random with no discernable design. I feel like a pawn in someone else’s game, sacrificed for someone else’s greater good. But sacrificed by whom and for what purpose?

This cave I live in is the only concrete thing that I’ve got right now. It’s where I hide from the world outside to get some peace of mind. Is it cowardice to remain so stuck in this protective shell? Maybe it’s a blessing to be in this position, but it’s also a drag in some way, to feel so isolated for most of the day from the throng of activity, while I ponder these thoughts about the state of the world. I’d rather express positive thoughts, but the words that want to come out are like the distant cries of a lost soul, and quickly provoked they can sound like incoherent rage. So I shut them inside and these thoughts begin to take their toll on me. It feels like I’m suppressing my rage for the common good, that the world will go on any way whether I speak or not. It seems pointless taking sides when all sides seem the same viewed from different angles. Is it cynical? I never thought I’d be this down on humanity. I still experience the beauty and the joy. But it gets harder to reach with every bit of bullshit news. It’s the bullshit that’s the problem, and how it makes me feel.

But there is real news, I don’t doubt that the world’s on the brink of some societal calamity unless we get our collective shit together. Our habitat is in a state of imminent collapse because of our actions and inactions and the brutal wars are incessant. The fears are not doom-laden prophecies, they’re demonstrable facts. But I still don’t know how I’m supposed to react to the information presented to me. So I often ponder in silence, in doubt, in hesitation, and I seem to slink further and further away from the edge of normality and risk alienation with each passing day in my comfortable cave. I don’t want that to be the all of me, so I am bound to resist and the only way I know how right now is to speak words, however broken and bruised and twisted they seem. I may be deemed a waste of space by those numbed enough not to feel affected by the violence and terror out there. But in spite of the opinion of others, as sure as I can be, all I can do with certainty is to voice what feels true to me, and try to express what I’m feeling, so that maybe others who feel the same way can find connection, to voice their own truth in any way they know how. This is how resistance to mind-numbing conformity gains strength and meaning.

Every time I get the chance, no matter how unschooled and uncouth I might sound, I must speak; every time I almost succumb to the trance of being fed information without connection, I must speak; every day I witness a violation of what we profess to hold sacred, I must speak; every day I experience another ideal scarred and punctured, I must speak. I must speak. I must speak. The very act of voicing the emotions that are stirring inside me, is not to establish anything other than the right to express how I am feeling right now, which helps to remind me that I am real, that in expressing I can begin the process of reconnection even from the cave. Because connection does not only happen in real time, ironically it can also happen with words read by someone in another space. Emotions are the avenue to meaning and connection, they cannot be allowed to rest inside a shell.

The dream of peace we once nurtured together lies shattered, with no how, no why, just endless repeating of disconnected signals on the wifi. We have to take up the slack, find the thread, make the connections, fight back. Horrific missives so insistent they become numbing to receive, cannot force us to become zoned out as we feed on the daily propaganda news and believe what we are told to believe. I thought I understood, but I must not be afraid to say that I’m at a dead end right now and I need a leap of faith. I really need to find the courage somewhere inside, but I need first to get the festering thoughts out and to boldly share them with the world for my own peace of mind. I’m older now and I’m supposed to have a better idea of the story, but the story I knew no longer makes sense to me, so it seems I need to first clear out the dusty pages in the back of my mind.

I do not want to become hardened and rigid to the changing times. It saddens me this tribalism of left and right that seems to be growing incessant with each passing day. This extremity of thought, with people itching to take sides and to hate the other and to feel justified in doing so. These bubbles we live in just to make us feel righteous are prisons of illusion, doesn’t anyone see? They are not representative of reality. Back scratching only gets you so far. We need more than this to move us through hard times. We might not want to feel the pain of the other side, but unless we learn to see beyond the comforting lies we tell each other, we’ll be left unable to rise to meet the tide as it washes away what’s left of what we used to hold dear. There are hard words to say, which might make the difference when push comes to shove. Revolutions do not come to pass without resistance, but it’s evolution, a paradigm shift that is desperately needed and must arise from all of this repetition. Maybe these words that I speak can find meaning, jolt me out of this cave and into connection, and a way to break this spell of illusion. Some clarity at least, to find some common truth along the way, and to hope I might inspire others trapped in their own mind prisons to find their own way of expressing what is real inside of them.

Acid Drops: Andy Roberts – A Review

Acid DropsAndy Roberts already has a definitive place in the recent resurgence of interest and research into psychedelic substances, having penned a well-received historical account of LSD in his 2012 book Albion Dreaming. Subtitled, A Popular History of LSD in Britain, it recounts the history of LSD from its synthesis in the laboratory of Albert Hoffman, to the British intelligence experimentations as a tool of the military, early research and use by psychiatrists on their patients, right through to the banning of the substance and the subsequent explosion of interest in the 1960s that led to the “hippie” counterculture. It is more or less a chronological account, and it is never more interesting than when recounting the continuing development of the psychedelic scene in the 1970s. It is here where Roberts’s own experiences give the historical analysis a personal confirmation. This is necessary because the propaganda and policing of this most wondrous of substances has distorted the accounts of the names and the places, so correcting many misconceptions and false accusations concocted by media, police and politicians becomes essential. In Albion Dreaming, Roberts mentions familiar names and places to anyone with a passing interest in the history of LSD. Operation Julie, the police operation that broke the huge production of LSD in the UK in the 1970s is detailed, as is the UK visit of the acclaimed Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in 1967, where he wrote his epic LSD poem, Wales Visitation.

In Acid Drops, many of the historical characters and episodes contained in Albion Dreaming are naturally present. But what Andy does in Acid Drops feels like the metaphorical mirror of an acid trip itself. The linear, sober analysis of Albion Dreaming is replaced by a looser and deeper, more malleable account of the history and the effect of Hoffman’s so-called “problem child”. Dr Ben Sessa, one of the pioneers of the modern resurgence of interest in LSD, gives a foreward and he speaks of the unexpected benefit of the enforced break that prohibition and policing created in the 80s and 90s, from the heady and wacked out days of the 60s and 70s, with its sprawling and defiant trip literature, UFO sightings, free festivals and all, to the modern incarnation, which is to investigate the effects of these drugs from a scientific perspective. There is the natural reticence of the scientist to go too far into the crazy detail of the subjective psychedelic experience, or of what less skilled minds might uncover within. But Andy, being someone who was steeped in that earlier history, has no fear to tread or re-tread there, and it is a testament to his own level-headedness and willingness to question what he finds without completely relinquishing the weirdness, which gains both the respect of Sessa and simultaneously keeps hold of the thread of the counterculture and the very strangeness of the experience, giving it a relevance to the present popularity of psychedelic research within academia and in the general public. And how apt that the book is given an afterward by the occultist, chaos magician and well-respected psychedelic explorer Julian Vayne, who also reminds us of the importance of anchoring the transcendent experience into the everyday reality, to ground some of the luminosity, inspiration and all-out weirdness into a constructive use and as an approach to one’s everyday life.

There are many highlights in this book and the names and places read like a glossary of UK psychedelia, which will either be familiar or instructive to anyone who wishes to understand the history of the UK psychedelic scene of the time. For me the in-depth account of the creation of Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Wales Visitation, from his ingestion of LSD, to the initial sketches while tripping and finally into the completion of the poem itself, gives a unique account of the creative process, not only of one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, but also as an example of someone who was able to artfully and confidently bridge the stream-of-consciousness and mystical states of the psychedelic experience with the conventional world and its often resistant and jaundiced view of the acid head. Never is this more obvious than when Ginsberg reads out the poem on the Conservative American polemicist William F Buckley’s TV talk show, which is available for all to see on YouTube. Buckley finds he cannot overtly mock its poetic brilliance and so ends with the faint praise “I kinda liked that”.

But it’s not all sweetness and light. The infamous acid casualties are not as rare as some aficionados would like to believe and drop outs, people who could not let go of the dreams and visions and were stranded in the psychedelic liminal space, of illusions and delusions, can also be used, and have been used, as an excuse to condemn not only the individuals and the drug, but also the necessity of the irrational non-ordinary states to our creativity. Roberts himself is no stranger to the dark side of the psychedelic experience. He begins the book with an account of his first LSD trip, which became a terrifying ordeal and it is this perhaps which gives the book and his subsequent experiences such grounding. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger they say. I would say those who are damaged by the negative experiences can become dead to the world in some way, whereas to survive such experiences with rational mind intact with an ability to communicate the experience gives one an insight and empathy that can come in handy not only in negotiating other psychedelic experiences, but also in relating with others who have confusing, outright delusional and frightening experiences. It is Andy’s sober, unsentimental compassion that shines through the book and it is his own ability to communicate these experiences in a way that does not get lost in the strangeness that has made him such a popular feature of the biennial academic and scientific conference, Breaking Convention.

His own psychedelic synchronicities are amusing and telling. Few who have any full-on psychedelic trip can escape those subjective feelings of fatedness or synchronicities that often seem to occur. Some get freaked out, some ignore them and cast them off as “mere” coincidence. Andy recounts his experiences with both a sense of reverence and objectivity, which is a fine balancing act. Embarking on various trips through the 70s with set intentions and discovering along the way some seeming result of the intention, is a feature of at least three experiences he recalls, such as when he recounts discovering rubber ducks on a beach after reading about a ship sinking with a cargo of rubber ducks in the Pacific, finding a Pink Floyd scrawled in pink on a piece of wood in the middle of a detour on a country road after listening to a Pink Floyd album, and witnessing the aftermath of a car crash after drawing the card of Death in a tarot reading, all after taking LSD.

Could these seemingly connected occurrences, so often intensified during the psychedelic experience (and in deep meditation and visualisation techniques) point to some kind of link between the fabric of reality and consciousness, or are they merely simultaneous arisings, the so-called synchronicity of Jungian psychology, rather than any evidence of cause and effect? Perhaps they are really nothing more than an erroneous sense of agency we feel, brushing up against the philosophical actuality of material determinism, which noted neuroscientists and philosophers such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett are so fond of discussing. There are no conclusive answers, but these are subjects we should not shy away from, and neither should scientists. It cannot be left to the naive, to the credulous or to the paranoid and Andy is brave enough to risk divulging. Healthy and light-hearted scepticism rather than cynicism is needed and a holistic understanding is preferable to conventional linear approaches, with a compassion for our natural curiosity, for our fragility as human beings, our vulnerability and our earnest desire to understand. All should be taken into account in these investigations, all should be understood in context of present knowledge and in the context of what is anecdotally suggested.

Another highlight for me (and there are many more names and events that I do not have the time and space to go into, but which make the book such an important anthology and testament to psychedelic history and the psychedelic experience), is the interview that Andy gives with the psychedelic author Liz Elliott and her account of her time in Algeria in the autumn of 1970 with Timothy Leary, who had fled the US authorities to seek sanctuary with Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. This is a fascinating, illuminating documentary of the time and of these characters with their charisma and imperfections laid bare, weaving the psychedelic and the political turbulence of the time into an adventure story that is the stuff of legend, giving insight into the gritty, drug-fuelled outlaw nature of those who stood up to the tyranny of authoritarianism. Another such account is with the former LSD chemist and psychedelic advocate Casey Hardison, whose account of his experiences having been arrested and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for producing vast quantities of LSD to turn on minds and spread consciousness, and who catalogued a meticulous ideological defence, is also a vital part of the modern story of drug prohibition and the mindset of authoritarian western governments and law enforcement.

In posting his own creative prose and poetry, Andy Roberts is also bolder here in his second book on LSD. These creative interludes are important because of their familiarity. Their literary similarity to so much noted psychedelic literature published over the years is evident. Straight society might scoff at such surreal meanderings, but there is a syntax and imagery that, while it may jar with the more rational and ordered literary critic, will nevertheless be familiar to anyone who has taken psychedelics and may have sought to express the experiences creatively, rather than give a solely objective account. But even here Andy is sparse and succinct, one piece a short account of a particularly inspiring early LSD trip, the other a Kerouac-like travelogue, which still retains the dry wit and unique rhythms of contemporary English language mixed in with acid-tinged imagery. And finally, while musing on so many historical figures, Andy takes the opportunity to deconstruct a more recent myth, that of the co-discoverer of DNA, Francis Crick, taking LSD and discovering the double helix through visualising it in a trip. He does not dismiss the story entirely, but he meticulously investigates the journalist’s background and possible motives, the historical account from contemporaries of Crick, and he concludes that, though nothing can be stated as definitive, it is highly unlikely Crick would have taken LSD at the time he made the discovery. This is journalistic work of the highest standard, which is why Andy is held in such high regard, both by scientists and mystics.

Acid Drops is needed at this time. It is important that the resurgence of interest and research into psychedelics does not become defined solely by a reductionist, materialist, scientific approach, as important as that approach is to ground the experience in the language and understanding of the rational. The history and the cultural value of the experience is beyond that, in many ways it is beyond an ordered definition. It is by its nature resistant to order, the weirdness and radical nature of the characters and their experiences cannot be allowed to be categorised as separate and distant from our daily existence. It cannot be isolated from our present experience. Investigations into the nature of this substance and the messy, often discordant nature of humanity struggling against the strictures of an authoritarian society are often at odds with societal evolution. Disorder is as intrinsic to the creative human experience as order and we can only get a handle on the healthy societal use of these substances when we are able to bring the darkness of our unconscious mind to light and recognise also our shadows.

Much can be learned from Acid Drops and from Andy Robert’s approach, his meticulousness, clarity and courage in cataloguing all aspects of the psychedelic experience, both historical and anecdotal, including his own; his affection for the times, the places and the people involved, both the celebrated and the often nameless and derided, and his willingness to both accept the mythology as a necessary part of the journey, without getting too lost in the absoluteness that others have often claimed for such experiences. This is a vital addition to the growing body of psychedelic literature and stands as an anthropological and sociological testament to the resilience and genius of this compound and its effect on humanity. I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to educate themselves in the history, experience and use of this most fascinating of substances, and who may wish to join in the campaign to end the blight of prohibition, which has destroyed so many lives and which has only temporarily halted the inevitability of human progress and the understanding gained from its use.

Challenging media narratives in discussions of psychedelics

Medium is the Message

Marshall McLuhan, media and cultural theorist, who coined the term “The Medium is the Message”

One of the difficulties in writing about Breaking Convention, the biennial gathering of scientists, academics, shamans and psychedelic explorers researching the use of many psychoactive substances, is that of correctly placing it in the context of the present legal condition of drug prohibition, the moral climate of suspicion and my own experiences with various psychoactive substances over many years. What I have witnessed in the past 11 years, since attending my first psychedelic conference in the UK, the groundbreaking Exploring Consciousness held in Bath in 2004, is the growth of scientific study and historical and anthropological research on a wide variety of psychoactive substances that have been made illegal to use, and remain so despite growing evidence of their medical, psychological and social value. This work has often been initiated and continues in the US, but the UK has also nurtured and maintained a psychedelic culture, and has been blessed with talented and courageous scientists who have been able to translate that quest into solid scientific evidence that is of great value in opening official doors.

In the intervening years, I have seen organisations such as MAPS and Oxford’s Beckley Foundation amass a wealth of evidence for a scientific and legal case for ending prohibition, helped by campaigning groups such as Transform. But despite some media attention and a few positive articles, the overarching media narrative and political rhetoric remains resolutely prohibitionist. So we have this curious situation of scientists presenting research on the margins of legality, often with grudging government approval and often secretively it would seem, outside the legal framework. Along with those who take psychedelics for cognitive exploration, for recreation or as part of a religious ritual, many citizens are flouting the law, forming part of a growing and identifiable counterculture that has its roots in 1960s counterculture and presently existing with some rebelliousness outside the mainstream spotlight and in a sort of psychedelic netherworld, avoiding the intense public attention that might also attract visits from hysterical journalists and overzealous police officers, but which might also result in a fruitful dialogue were it ever allowed to take its place in mainstream media discussion.

It is this tacit acceptance of drug use that the much-derided Peter Hitchens is perhaps referring to when he says we already live in a decriminalised state. It is just that personal economic wealth more often than not protects one from the possibility of legal censure, while violence from the state is most likely to be specific to areas of poverty, with ethnic origin also being a determining factor in who is subject to that violence, which is also directed at political activists, who often forcefully challenge legality and legitimacy. Morally, the use of drugs deemed illegal or decriminalised, is seen de facto as causing harm, and perhaps those who feel this way also feel the same way about alcohol, as having the potential for deep destructiveness (which is scientifically one of the most destructive psychoactives), but which gets a pass simply because of its legal status, as the rights of an individual within the legal framework are protected to a certain extent.

The organisers of Breaking Convention, academics and scientists from respected universities, have done a marvellous and courageous job in bringing three conferences over six years to the UK, inviting speakers from around the world to discuss their latest research, whether it be the neurochemical pathways activated by DMT use, the indigenous methods and rituals in the use of ayahuasca or iboga, or the psychological benefits of counselling in the treatment of post-traumatic stress using MDMA. All have been and continue to be of great use in presenting an evidence-based case for an end to the war on drugs and halting the destructive effect of prohibition, which engenders in any person interested in these substances a sense of excitement both that this research exists and also that there exists a possibility of becoming personally involved in further research.

Of course there is also a growing sense of anticipation of the possibility that these substances may soon be treated as any pharmaceutical drug would, as legitimate pathways to health and wellbeing, in a world that has overcome its irrational fear of the harms that these substances can do if abused, and that a change in the law is imminent, or at least not too far in the distance. I have often thought the same myself, and the scientific evidence would seem to be definitive to me of their relative benefits and harms. The case for legalisation, or at the very least decriminalisation and medical licensing, may be strong from a scientific point of view, but the moral and ethical case is struggling to challenge prevailing assumptions of how a proper society should function.

I am not as hopeful as I’d like to be that these assumptions can be challenged without an overarching political narrative that highlights and critiques existing norms of behaviour and moral assumptions about cognitive liberty and mystical experience. The challenges must come in all fields, but in law, science, media and government (an extension of law) false moral assumptions are at their most acute, since this is where rules of behaviour are established and preserved. An analysis of systemic power and intransigent worldviews is necessary to explain the difficulties in these most human of motives to wish to explore altered states being prohibited within law and dismissed in mainstream media. A more radical political narrative in the general narrative of psychedelic discussions is needed to challenge assumptions and create better undertanding.

In 2015, at Breaking Convention, I presented a talk that attempted to explain the resistance in political life and mainstream media, to the use of these substances in public life. It was the first talk I have delivered to the public on this matter in this form. I felt privileged to be part of the set-up, among so many distinguished scientific and academic voices, and perhaps this led to me being overawed by the occasion, so my presentation did not go as smoothly as I had hoped. I was speaking at the same time Professor David Nutt delivered a talk in the main auditorium, along with novelist Anna Hope’s equally popular talk on Radical Uncertainty in the other main hall, so I spoke to barely 20 people.

My general premise is that there are forces and trends at work which it is important for us to identify and challenge, that make the possibility of prohibition ending a more difficult prospect than simply making the science case for health and wellbeing. There are powerful self-interested parties at work, lobbyists in the House of Commons, House of Lords and other religious institutions that find the idea of drug liberalisation problematic at the very least, outright scandalous at worst. The issue has never solely been about science or rational argument, it has also been about the maintaining of a power structure that serves a narrow strata of society, and the irrational fears that those in positions of power instill in those who they have co-opted, wittingly or unwittingly, into maintaining the structure of “how things should be”. Psychedelics open us up to the myriad possibilities of interpreting the world in ways that exist outside the framework of the materialist corporate mindset, and since mainstream media is driven by the concerns and assumptions of corporate materialism, anything that challenges that does not rest easy on the page or in discussions.

But in order to successfully challenge these assumptions on evidence, perhaps a meticulous study of mainstream media stories on psychedelics is needed and a deeper psychological and sociological dissection of the language used and the type of media presented, as well as identifying the common concerns, fears and prejudices around the effects, both individual and communal, of the use of certain psychedelics. At present this cannot happen, or is not happening, in mainstream media and while such experiences are openly discussed at festivals and in general within music and art culture, there is perhaps need of an academic structure that can present these discussions on a more solid foundation, so that in any mainstream discussion of psychedelics, the cultural as well as scientific case can be made. The narrative cannot be determined solely by the corporate materialist mindset. It is this ideology more than anything, that needs to be challenged.