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The Psychedelic [in] Society:
A Brief Cultural History of Tripping

     Psychedelics are notorious today because of the rude splash they made in the Sixties and Seventies, when the tidal wave of altered consciousness they unleashed billowed across the social landscape, upsetting many an apple cart, Newtonian and otherwise, along the way. During the course of this insurrectional drive to expand the human mind, millions of students, artists, and other seekers were ushered by chemical agents toward – and, hopefully, through -- the Doors of Perception, a term borrowed from William Blake by Aldous Huxley to describe, in his 1954 book of the same title, the expansive universe to which drugs such as LSD can open up the mortal brain -- a realm in which everything appears, in Blake's words, "as it is, infinite."

            Timothy Leary’s calls to “tune in” psychedelically and Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, the multimedia LSD extravaganzas immortalized by Tom Wolfe, steered untold legions through these portals into a molten state of being which is all but smothered today beneath the buttoned-down collars of straight-laced yuppie composure. Because most psychedelic drugs have been illegal since 1966, there are no accurate polls to determine the numbers of people who experimented. But many at least temporarily heeded Leary's clarion call to abandon middle-class security and catch the wave of revelation by gulping down psychotropic chemicals. Leary's death in 1996 has sparked a burst of introspection on the impact of the drugs he proselytized, and the high numbers of Baby Boomers who stormed heaven with them now have the stature to contemplate the fruits of their rebellions.

            The demographics of tripping are actually much broader than one might suspect. You needn't be a hippie to have a psychedelic background. The corporate and civic leaders who are running the country today are likely to have once been experimental long-hairs in their school days. We know that President Bill Clinton and both major-paty candidates vying to succeed him, Texas governor George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore, have admitted or intimated they've used illegal drugs. Indeed, many in high places today have been in even higher ones in their youth, touring the outer galaxies of their own minds on acid and other psychedelics. Millions have a unique lens embedded in their minds composed of the rarefied fibers of their hallucinogenic experiences. Meanwhile, many who didn't "turn on" are wondering, "What did I miss?" Still others, psychedelic veterans among them, find “recreational” drugs and the culture of their “indulgence” disquieting, and for good reason from their perspective. Trips, after all, were known to go awry.

            As the new millennium begins, the use of psychedelics is again on the rise after tapering off in the 1980s. How could this be happening? Wasn’t the first time around, the convulsive Sixties and Seventies, too unsettling for anybody to want to go back? Well, the fact is that human beings will always want to suspend everyday reality, be it by legal means or otherwise, and they will always be at least curious about alternate states of consciousness, especially those that are consecrated in many of the world’s ancient traditions.

            Veneration for the induced visionary experience has roots in virtually every culture on earth, however sublimated or repressed it is today. In fact, one could argue that the use of visionary plants and hallowed drafts has been seminal to the development of civilization. Two of the most pervasive and influential cultures the planet has ever seen, that of Hellenistic Greece and Aryan India, contained at their very core inspirations derived from the ingestion of psychedelic concoctions.

For two thousand years before its eradication by Christians in the fourth century A.D., the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries was the peak-experience of the ancient Greeks, a “holy institution,” according to religion historian Huston Smith, for regularly opening ”a space in the human psyche for God to enter.” After a half year of rites, the pilgrimage to Eleusis just west of Athens climaxed with the re-enactment of a sacred drama that was enhanced by the drinking of kykeon, a grainy beverage beleived to contain barley ergot. Among notable initiates were Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Cicero, Pindar, and possibly Homer. A communion between gods and men, between the living and the dead, the ceremony at Eleusis was a symbolic journey to the underworld to claim back from death Persephone, the daughter of the grain goddess Demeter. The setting for this ur-psychedelic experience was a telesterion (initiation hall) at the very site where Persephone is said to have emerged from Hades with the newborn son she’d conceived in death there. A series of breathtaking, masterfully orchestrated special effects enthralled the senses and conjured the specter of deliverance from the forces of darkness through a ritualized resurrection. The whirlpool of stimuli that washed over initiates involved an Oz-like chimera of voices, music, perfumes, mists, light and shadows. At the peak of the crescendo, the “bellowing roar of a gong-like instrument that outdid…the mightiest thunderclap, coming from the bowels of the earth” announced the arrival of the queen of the netherworld.

            All were forbidden by penalty of death to tell what they’d seen. According to Carl A.P. Ruck, co-author with R. Gordon Wasson of The Road to Eleusis (1978), “Even a poet could only say that he had seen the beginning and the end of life and known that they were one, something given by God. The division between earth and sky melted into a pillar of light.” Of course, some couldn’t hold their tongues about such a marvel. A scandal ensued when some aristocratic Athenians began celebrating the Mysteries at dinner parties in their homes with groups of  “drunken” revelers. Socrates himself was tried and condemned for using the sacred brew recreationally. (Such a profanation of the holy potion might have a modern-day parallel in the spilling of LSD into the well water of the mass media and youth culture during the early Sixties).

            Notably, the Mysteries were not freely conjured by anyone who could get their hands on the kykeon. They were the exclusive charge of two families who served as hierophants for two thousand years. Clearly, the indoctrination and rites leading up to the swigging of the mash were at least as influential as the concoction itself in weaving the phantasm that stole over the pilgrims’ senses. Such congregational participation and extensive preparation for a psychedelic experience is almost unheard of in the modern West. If anything like the Eleusinian Mysteries had survived the hi-tech world of today, it would almost certainly be diluted and profaned, taking the form of a commercialized adventure-tourism attraction involving a multimedia circus of light and sound somewhat akin to the group-mind experience of a Trips Festival or a rave. Re-creation of the kykeon brew has proved elusive, however, even to such consummate ergot specialists as Albert Hofmann, who used the fungus in his 1938 invention of LSD.

            The earliest known religious texts are a collection of hymns called The Rig Veda, written by Aryans who swept down into India from Siberia. Among the one thousand twenty-eight verses, considered the foundation of the Hindu religion, a hundred and twenty are devoted to praise for the rootless, leafless plant called Soma, which is deified for conferring immortality and divine inspiration. “We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods.” (Rig Veda 8.48.1-15)

             Wasson conjectured that Soma was Amanita muscaria, the red-capped Fly Agaric mushroom depicted ubiquitously to this day in European folktale literature, and used ritualistically by Siberian and some Native American tribes. This conclusion was based, in part, on the Amanita’s unique property of being able to inebriate people who drink the user’s urine, which is corroborated by a reference in The Rig Veda to ceremonial urine drinking. Wasson tried Amanita several times himself, but never really got off. Terence McKenna believes that Soma is actually the Psilocybe cubensis mushroom, in part because of the generally weak and erratic performance of the Amanita mushroom in modern trials. In this volume, however, I’ve included an Amanita trip tale that corroborates Wasson’s theory, an excerpt from Clark Heinrich’s book Strange Fruit (1995), which is now available in an (expanded) American edition as Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy. Uncovering the ancient ethnobotanical truth about Soma is an ongoing endeavor, but there is little doubt that the very ether of Indian religion is a psychotropic, probably mycelial, plant.

            The average American today still has little if any inkling of the traditions for the sacramental use of mushrooms and other plants by cultures across the globe, lumping all drugs into one baggie-full of stupefying intoxicants that will turn you into a sick, lazy low-life bound for jail or an early death. Unlikely as it may seem, however, an appreciation for the induced visionary experience is apparent not so far beneath the surface of mainstream modern culture. For me this remnant sensibility is epitomized in the vision of Walt Disney (a known cocaine user), whose imagineered™ re-creations of classic fables often alluded to the fruitful alterability of consciousness.

The pivotal scene in Dumbo (1941), for instance, is the transformation of consciousness and augmentation of capacity -- in this case, the big-eared elephant’s motor skills -- via a hallucinatory delirium brought on when the dejected pachyderm drinks a barrel full of water into which, unbeknownst to him, a bottle of spirits had been accidentally spilled. To the foreboding lyrics and serpentine melody of “Pink Elephants on Parade,” Dumbo begins seeing things “you know that ain’t” (a succession of fractals and geometrical patterns, forms morphing into new ones, and scenes of Oriental mystery and erotica), then passes into oblivion, from which he wakes up in the highest branches of a tree. Thus Dumbo earns his wings not through an act of obeisance to the Ten Commandments but in the throes of a psychotropic-induced visionary state.

Fantasia (1940) features scenes that portray synthesthesia (“See the music, hear the pictures,” reads the video's promotional copy) and other phantasmic phenomena that make it one of the most beloved of all films to view while tripping. According to psychedelic scholar Peter Stafford, Disney’s "chief visualist" for the project was a mescaline subject of Kurt Beringer (an associate of Carl Jung and Herman Hesse), who published The Mescaline Inebriation in 1927. In the early decades of Disneyland, a pink elixir was served upon entry in the Enchanted Tiki Room to accentuate the pleasure of the tropical respite and render the bird songs that much sweeter. The psychoactive element of the potion was “make believe,” of course, but today, in deference to stricter notions of “family values” now in vogue, the suggestive little cocktail is no longer offered to visitors.

            Since the cataclysms of the Sixties and Seventies, a more tenacious if less overtly messianic subculture has grown up around the psychedelic. Nowhere in the industrial world is psychedelic consciousness more above-board and appreciated than in the computer software business, where it is regarded as the inspiration for cybernetics -- the very definition of twenty-first century communications efficiency -- by many of its most illustrious practitioners. According to Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the virtual reality industry, “…almost to a person, the founders of the [personal] computer industry were psychedelic style hippies…..Within the computer science community there’s a very strong connection with the ‘60s psychedelic tradition, absolutely no question about it.

In the TNT docudrama Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999), Apple founder Steve Jobs is depicted on an acid trip in which he conceives himself the conductor of his own cosmic symphony. Bob Wallace, one of the early developers of Microsoft, who now runs Mind Books, the online purveyor of tomes devoted to psychedelic and alternative consciousness, has said that his conception of shareware as a formal business application was psychedelically inspired. Lotus spreadsheet designer Mitchell Kapor, co-founder with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet advocacy organization, has attributed certain “recreational chemicals” with sharpening his business acumen. Bob Jesse left his position as vice president of business development at Oracle, the world’s second largest software company after Microsoft, to head the Council on Spiritual Practices, a non-profit organization that advocates (among other things) the responsible use of entheogens (divine-manifesting drugs) for religious purposes. Such a marriage of technology and psychedelic consciousness – and a resoundingly profitable and influential one at that -- might have been foretold by Marshall McLuhan’s 1968 observation that “the computer is the LSD of the business world.”

            The possibility that industrial success might in any way be attributed to the psychedelic is not overtly bantered about in Wall Street boardrooms, where psychedelic acuity is not yet measured out in lucre as an asset or variable in a company’s fortunes. But according to author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, firms “such as Sun Microsystems that lead the Valley of the Nerds [Silicon Valley] recognize the popularity of psychedelics among their employees.” You need only one look at the covers of the cyber-age magazines Wired and Mondo 2000 to conclude that the computer cognizenti have had at least some contact with the whirring currents of the psychedelic Mainframe.

            The phrase “We’re all connected!,” often exclaimed during a psychedelic experience, might just as well be uttered by a PC user tapping into the mycelium-like World Wide Web for the first time. Cyberspace is, in many respects, an electronic mirror of the hyperspatial web of synaptic nerves running through the Universal Mind, the Indra’s Net of impulses and receptor sites that some say they’ve accessed by psychedelics. (According to ancient myth, Indra, the king of the Hindu pantheon, created a vast web comprised of strings of jewels. Each jewel both reflected and was reflected by all the others, thus revealing both its uniqueness and its universality.) A sort of invisible yet real medium of contact between any and all points, cyberspace is a habitat for the mitosis-like proliferation of the idea germs called memes, and an endless mind field on which to explode the fractal equations that portray the parallel orders of controlled chaos in the universe.

           

* * *

Much of what I unearthed about contemporary psychedelic culture would be considered elementary or passe to the many who tune into recordings of McKenna’s incandescent rants; travel hundreds of miles to raves, Rainbow Gatherings, or neo-pagan festivals like Starwood and Burning Man; subscribe to hyperspatial mind rags like TRP, Head Magazine, and Magical Blend; and log on to the homepage for the  Salvia divinorum Research and Information Center and other psychedelic Websites. But I uncovered a great deal of information about the subject that I wish I’d known back when I was a teenage tripper in the 1970s. My research revealed how much I and others were in the dark -- and still are -- in regard to maximum safety and security issues, the history of psychedelic substance usage, and the wisest methods of navigating the various hazards and hassles of the psychedelic experience. Although there have been many new developments since I started out (new substances, resources, methods), much of the apparent change that I perceive in psychedelic culture is only a function of my earlier ignorance. When I started tripping at age fifteen, I’d barely boned up on the subject. There was information and guidance available, of course, but I was aware of very little of it.

            I have since learned that the modern psychedelic revolution first germinated in the time and place that I was born, in mid-Fifties Los Angeles, unofficially inaugurated on a brilliant morning in May 1953, when Huxley threw back 400 milligrams of “mescalin” sulfate in the tawny, then-unspoiled Hollywood Hills. The psychedelic then enjoyed a decade of expansive development before generating so much heat that the law was provoked to come down harshly on it. (The State of California’s ban on LSD took effect on October 6, 1966, and the other states soon followed suit.) Many might be astonished that “mind-blowing” psychedelics once enjoyed an age of relative freedom of proliferation and experimentation, during which one worried not about getting busted and only minimally about “freaking out.” During that window of opportunity, psychologists, Beats and artists, and various members of the intelligentsia, including some pillars of the ruling class, experimented quietly and not so quietly with mescaline sulfate, psilocybin tablets, and LSD-25 to mostly rave reviews.

Cary Grant, the very emblem of debonair Forties-era class, admitted taking acid over a hundred times under psychiatric supervision in the 1950s. Thrilled with the results, he crediting LSD with helping him control his boozing and come to terms with unresolved conflicts involving his parents. (I recall a circa 1970 article in a Chicago daily in which Grant described how, during an early acid experience, he was so overwhelmed with the expurgatorial power of the drug that he felt he was about to let loose with a terrific, system-wide, psychical bowel movement.) Time/Life publisher Henry Luce described “chatting up God” on a golf course during an LSD session, while his wife, Claire Boothe Luce, cleaned her psychical house with the medicine. A right-wing idealogue, Mrs. Luce believed that LSD was fine for the elite, but not advisable for the masses. "We wouldn't want everyone doing too much of a good thing," she is reported as saying.

Before the ban, psychedelic research focused on the use of LSD in treating alcoholism, depression, sexual neuroses, autism, compulsive syndromes, and criminal psychopathology. By 1965 there were more than two thousand scientific papers describing the treatment of up to forty thousand patients with psychedelic drugs. Success was commonplace. Among the more stunning results were from studies in which LSD was used in the treatment of autistic children at UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and of chronic alcoholics at Hollwood Hospital in British Columbia and Spring Grove State Hospital in Baltimore. In a 1961 letter to Leary, Alcoholics Anonymous founder William Wilson waxed glowingly about the “immense and growing value” of “LSD and some kindred alkaloids,” having personally experienced their ability to break down barriers within the self.

            By the time I boarded the psychedelic bus in 1970, the commotion over LSD had already spawned a backlash against the dispersal of the chemicals far beyond the enclaves of the elite to the teenyboppers of a mass media-fed youth culture. Leary is held largely responsible for this debacle. After conducting several laudable studies as a Harvard psychologist, and pioneering and then road-mapping the psychedelic landscape in highly serviceable books used as bibles by trippers in-the-know during the Sixties -- The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964), and Psychedelic Prayers after the Tao Te Ching (1966) -- the zealous pie-eyed piper actually helped ruin the name -- and hence the experience of LSD as well as other psychedelics -- by his puerile jingoism and shenanigans. (The rise and fall of the psychedelic revolution is chronicled brilliantly in Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (1987) by Jay Stevens, which depicts the social factors and cumulative events that led to the national hysteria over LSD, which overtook the country and finally led to the drug’s criminalization.)

The dark age of the Leary hangover may now be giving way to new light on the psychedelic horizon, visible through some cracks in the wall of proscription. Thirty-four state legislatures and the District of Columbia have passed laws – yet in conflict with federal law -- recognizing marijuana's medical value. The FDA has recently ended its decades-long ban on clinical psychedelic use and approved new trials for LSD, psilocybin, DMT, MDMA, and ibogaine. In Brazil the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), a religious order that uses ayahuasca as a sacrament, got the legal right to do so by the national government in 1992. According to Curtis Wright, director of the addictive drugs division at the FDA, ”It’s clear that these agents have a role in understanding how the mind works, and there’s also a role for them as potential ways to help people.”

Back when I did most of my tripping, there were basically five psychedelic substances in use among my circles: LSD, so-called “mescaline” (usually inferior acid), peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, and MDA. Today, there is a whole galaxy of new choices, including an apparently infinite string of synthetic analogs banned automatically by the Analog Act of 1986. Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin, the former research scientist at Dow Chemical affectionately dubbed “the Godfather of MDMA (Ecstasy),” has annexed an extensive archipelago of new territory to the psychedelic continent by creating – and then self-testing -- new potions with the flick of a molecule. In PiHKAL (1991), an acronym for “phenethylamines I have known and loved,” Shulgin and his wife Ann document his laboratory inventions and their psychoactive properties in the context of a “A Chemical Love Story,” the courtship between these two now august and beloved figures in the psychedelic community.

            In 1997 I sat in on a DMT cell group in Manhattan, the likes of which, according to one member, has propagated as a response to McKenna’s irresistible endorsements. A cluster of fellows smoked the high-octane tryptamine in a dark room, then soared off internally for twenty minutes or so, returning to their senses to compare notes. The experience is so intense and otherworldly that it can take awhile to piece together just a fraction of what has happened. “If only I could remember the last thing I saw before I came out...,” stammered one of the psychonauts, struggling to reassemble the bolt of truth that had just laid siege to his mind.

            No longer a mere trend, rave (or dance) culture has swept the world since the late 1980s, a pacific movement by a mycelial network of MDMA-fueled Techno music revelers from Manchester, England to Koh Phangan, Thailand. In the UK, where rave took off and where youth culture burns fiercest perhaps, it is believed that the number of MDMA "pills" taken every week has increased steadily from one million in 1992. The ravers I met in London in 1997 gave me to believe that their legions, along with their defiant temperament, are growing. In the working-class district of Brixton, I talked to a laser technician for rave shows who predicts an apocalyptic confrontation between the British government and the increasingly Ecstatic youth. (It remains to be seen whether the commercialism and popstar iconoclasm that has most recently crept into rave events once notable for their spore-like spontaneity and the diffuse anonymity of the music, will numb the nerve-ends of the movement and render it increasingly harmless from the perspective of authorities.)

            The organic counterpart to Shulgin’s artificial pharmacopeia is the burgeoning field of ethnobotany, led by intrepid, rainforest-trekking scholars such as McKenna, Wallace, and Jonathan Ott, all intent on cataloging Mother Nature’s psychotropic tools and their use in shamanic rites by traditional cultures across the globe. There’s an ample and growing body of scholarship devoted to indigenous practices related to sacred plants, with passages on psychedelic seeds, snuffs, brews and other preparations that read like accounts of occult fetish worship in James Frazier’s The Golden Bough (1890) or Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). The adventure-travel circuit is riddled with mystical-magical locales where one can participate in authentic tribal rites with ayahuasca or the San Pedro cactus, take mushrooms or Ecstasy on a tropical beach under the full moon, or eat legal hash from a government shop. For the armchair traveler, Paul Devereux’s The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (1997) charts the use of sacred plants all over the world from the beginning of recorded history.

The ancient Mayan civilization, whose shamans apparently made ample use of the psilocybin mushroom, figures heavily in the mythology of today’s psychedelic culture. One of my participants, the London laser specialist I’ll call Stan, was keen to this, while embodying several matrices of contemporary psychedelic sophistication. Coming of age in what might be called “old wave” psychedelia, dropping acid at free festivals during the Seventies, his trade involves synchronizing beams of light to the rhythms of Goa Trance and Drum ‘N Bass music for throngs of MDMA-popping twenty-somethings who are gearing up for the new millennium and the Advent of the Alien. But Stan’s real cup of tea is a fascination with both the anthropology and the headspace of the tryptamines.

A few years ago Stan was studying the Mayan codices in the British Museum Library when he spotted a glyph that a Christian scholar had identified as a “night light” (i.e., the artificial light of candles or paraffin), but which he believed was actually a cross-section of the yage vine, a component of ayahuasca. Finding it curious that there were carvings of kings from separate generations sitting together eating, he translated a codex that gave what he interpreted as a recipe for time travel, using the yage. To celebrate the discovery, he and his brother-in-law, a mycologist, undertook a risky regime of psilocybin in combination with harmaline, an MAO inhibitor meant to potentiate the tryptamine in the mushrooms, over a period of several days.

In the course of their visioneering expedition, they encountered a network through time constructed by Mayan psychedelic shamans, who, Stan believes, set dates when they’d meet up with ancestors or progeny. When they knew that cosmological conditions were aligned for them to contact a royal figure from another age, the shamans would drink a tryptamine brew and use a form of psychical telekinesis to time-travel to meet up with him. Meanwhile, the long-departed or distant-future king would, in turn, be looking back because he knew that the shamans were looking for him.  Disintegrating into the biospheric mesh of the planet, Stan recalls, “we immediately saw them and they saw us.” After upping the dose of harmaline to dangerous levels, they had visions of the last scenes of the Mayan civilization, people dying of Old World diseases such as small pox, diphtheria, and cholera. However accurate his archaeological findings and historical notions, Stan’s experiences bespeak the transtemporal and cosmopolitan sensibility of the contemporary psychedelic scene.

            Oral ingestion of DMT with beta-carboline MAO inhibitors is now a sort of totem among many of today’s trippers, a way to both encounter and embody the Archaic Revival, the return to pure, autochthonic theology, often via modern chemistry, extolled in McKenna’s 1991 compilation volume of that name. These days there’s many an amateur ethnopharmacologist and psychedelic brewmeister out there, calculating the tryptamine to MAOI ratios just so. (Indeed, MAOIs can be dicey admixtures that can cause blackouts when taken in combination with tryptamines and possibly death when mixed with MDMA. Prescription MAOIs carry a slew of warnings about dangerous combinations.) Writes, R.U. Sirius, co-founder of Mondo 2000, which Time calls “the cyberculture mindstyle manual-magazine,” “You can find it [the independence and erudition of the new counterculture] on the Net, where millions of youths log on to psychedelic bulletin boards. Read through the public conversations, and you’ll start to wonder how many young psychedelic chemists conversant in biotechnology, comparative religion and visionary literature, are hiding in the American heartland.”

There is no doubt that with the advent of the new millennium, the use of psychedelics will continue to rise, both responsibly and otherwise, as they are increasingly seen as tools for penetrating the veils of quotidian maya and mass-media illusion spun by corporate greed. According to the best hopes of the new psychedelic vanguard, the expanded intelligent use of these plants and chemicals will usher in an eon of shamanic vistas and stronger definitions true to primordial forms: a pagan, aboriginal order in which the spirit will reign pre-eminent.

 

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