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A Conversation with Charles Hayes,
editor of
Tripping: An Anthology of True-Life Psychedelic Adventures


Q: We commonly associate "tripping" with the 1960s, but in fact people have been "tripping" for thousands of years. Why have people felt the need to trip? 

 A: Because there are genuine, time-tested traditions for the use of plants to extend consciousness and open the heart to values and wisdom, among other things. The psychedelic movements of the Sixties and, more recently, the rave scene have tribalized ritual drug usage in a more informal, youth-oriented setting, but it all harkens back to ancient shamanic and religious practices that have existed in most cultures around the world.


Q: What is the appeal of Ecstasy to young people today – as compared to the LSD so popular in the Sixties?

 A: Though there can be negative reactions, in the main, Ecstasy provides a spectacular feeling of joy and openness that can translate into an intense communal bond at settings such as raves; a heightened and expanded intimacy between friends or lovers; and an anxiety-free examination of one's own personality and neuroses.

 The rave movement is in some ways an echo of the psychedelic Sixties culture, though, in this case, without the challenge to the ego posed by LSD and similar drugs. In that respect, Ecstasy use is much less individual-oriented and largely free of such extreme conditions of alienation and solipsism, since it poses comparatively very little threat to the psyche. As community-oriented as it is, though, I don't think the Ecstasy generation has quite the dialectical edge that the psychedelic movement of the Sixties had. By comparison, LSD breaks down barriers much more violently than Ecstasy does, and the participants of the Sixties revolutions had more than one kind of wall they were fighting to bring down, which deepened the bond they had with one another across several fronts both physical and metaphysical.

 Of course, there is an expressly psychedelic contingent within the rave community, people who mix LSD and Ecstasy and who use other psychedelics such as DMT and psilocybin to achieve a sort of pagan, aboriginal grace through what the late shamanologist Terence McKenna called the "Archaic Revival."


Q: Are there any dangers to Ecstasy use?

 A: Yes, I think there definitely are for those who do it too much and too often and especially with impure material There are reports of nerve damage in such cases, though the outward symptoms are minimal thus far.

 For the most part, though, a single or infrequent dose of 150 milligrams, as had been recommended in psychiatric practices before Ecstasy was criminalized, has had generally marvelous effects upon people. Kids, of course, have a way of taking a good thing too far, so there are definitely perils to watch out for -- just as there are with, say, alcohol and cars. Harm reduction efforts, such as the lab-testing done by DanceSafe, should help in this regard.


Q: Are you concerned that your book glamorizes drugs?

A: My intent is to show both the tolls and the rewards for taking a chemically-abetted excursion from reality. Rare is the reward without a price. One guy who dropped acid at a Rainbow Gathering completely bought into the notion that he was attending the final celebration of the gods and that his urgent mission was to mate with his chosen one before the entire tribe moved on to a higher sphere at the climax of the "orgasm death dance." Did he experience a titanic sense of exhilaration? Sure, but he also had a horrible comedown when he regained his senses.

The same with a flashback subject, who had a sort of déjà vu of enlightenment, during which he began speaking in tongues, but then he plummeted into the flipside of that experience in an episode of horrific eternal recurrence that revisited him in flashbacks for years to come.

Occasionally, it can be sheer hell, as in the case of a woman who thought she was melting away; or, on the other end of the spectrum, sheer joy, as experienced by a fellow who watched a replay of his parents making love in the act of creating him. He just looked on in awe and gratitude, weeping.


Q: What really happens to a person on psychedelics?

A: Generally, psychedelics dissolve boundaries, which can produce a profound feeling of interconnectedness, the sense of the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm on a kind of molecular level. This naturally can lead to spiritual awakenings but also to what Aldous Huxley called a “terror of the infinite.”

Of course, it depends on the material you’re using. Some psychedelics, notably the tryptamines (DMT and psilocybin) are known to manifest more hallucinations and even a “voice” heard by many trippers. Salvia divinorum, the most powerful drug in nature by weight, tends to send people careening along distinctly geometrical lines of inner space.

Some patterns emerged in the testimonies, notably a cycle of contraction and relaxation with the latter winning out - that is if the dose was large enough and/or the subject surrendered to it. Most commonly, a boundary dissolution process begins that feels like the deconstruction of the ego and of all form, which tends to arouse panic. It's as if the pressure of mortality becomes almost unbearable in a physical sense, but then some mysterious ethereal gust rides through the center of it and unleashes a fantastic sense of relief and expansiveness. Trippers can feel as though they've lived their whole lives in a mere instant.


Q: How did you get people to talk about such transgressional events in their lives?

A: It was a pleasure and a relief, even cathartic, for my subjects to reveal (in taped interviews) some of their most sacred memories to me, which often brought them to tears. One fellow careened off into a flashback in the middle of recounting his story. A Scandinavian aristocrat I talked to broke down as he described being absolved by God during an LSD experience, as did another man who wept at the memory of a life-saving flash of peyote-derived inspiration on a dangerous precipice in the Grand Canyon. Many trips have been transformational for their subjects, who experienced breakthroughs or began new careers as a result.


Q. Is it necessary for readers to have tripped themselves in order to identify with these stories?

A. The beauty and terror of the stories in TRIPPING come more from the minds of the subjects than from the substances that conjured the phenomena. In many ways, the stories are the stuff of dreams, in this case, chemically induced ones. The content of these dreams speaks to the most primordial and archetypal of human concerns and values, so the fact that any law was broken is purely incidental to the story. Psychedelic drugs, are, after all, only catalysts, so it's really more instructive to consider them as more messenger than message.


Q: How did you choose the published stories from among those of the 120 subjects you interviewed?

A: I selected the stories for dramatic and literary value. I looked for tales that were true odysseys, adventures in which adversity was faced, and which produced breakthroughs, spiritual awakening, sexual catharsis, or psychological healing or some kind.


Q: Where did you find your subjects?

A: I traveled around the world twice to collect the narratives, going to India and Nepal, to London and across the US and Hawaii, and then returning to my base in Bangkok, where I was living for most of the project. I had a memorable time eating legal hashish biscuits with the sadhus in Haridwar, India, at the 1998 Kumbh Mela spiritual gathering, and visiting two legal peyote institutions in Arizona.


Q: How do you think Terence McKenna’s legacy will be perceived a generation from now?

A: I think he’ll be seen as the premier psychonaut of the age, who went a long way toward objectifying the phenomena of the psychedelic experience. He encouraged psychedelic experients to look far beyond themselves and their petty concerns for self-integration, serenity, and harmony and all such New Age-ish platitudes. No longer is the psychedelic pursuit a Sixties-style "Better Living Through Chemistry," a quick fix to raise your consciousness to a higher plateau, but an ongoing quest for knowledge about the universe and the nature of reality.

Terence issued a highly challenging announcement to humanity: that there is a Voice in the Plants trying to teach us something useful.


Q: Are you trying to promote the legalization of drugs?

A: It's irrelevant whether psychedelics are legal or illegal in this regard: The intensely dramatic experiences they engender would still be adventuresome and emotionally resonant, regardless of their legal status. Nevertheless, I think it’s criminal to incarcerate so many people for pursuing something as fundamental and natural as altering one’s consciousness. But I’m not a libertarian on the issue. I believe that all potentially useful drugs should be heavily regulated, if only to guarantee the chemical hygiene of the substances. Those who are knowledgeable (chemists, psychiatrists, religious authorities, shamans) could be placed in charge of institutionalizing the safe and responsible administration of psychedelics.


Q: Do most individuals really need to experience something as expressly intense, soul rocking, and utterly strange as a psychedelic experience can be? 

A: Probably not, though that does not in any way reduce the fascination for tales about such extremities of experience as are found in TRIPPING, adventures within the mind that may be considered the mental equivalent of mountain climbing or deep sea diving.


Q: Would you advise anyone to trip on a psychedelic drug?

A: Why bother, when you can read TRIPPING and avoid the risks?


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