What to do in a spiritual emergency

Last month I organized an event on ‘what to do in a spiritual emergency’ –you can see videos of the talks here. Three of my friends spoke bravely and lucidly about their own experiences – psychotherapist and film-maker Anna Beckmann, poet and transformational coach Louisa Tomlinson, and Tai-Chi teacher Anthony Fidler – and Dr Tim Read, a wonderfully wise and compassionate psychiatrist, gave us his perspective. It felt great to talk openly and sympathetically about still feels quite a taboo topic – spirituality in general is a bit of a dirty word in the very secular UK (especially in academia), and spiritual crises are even less often discussed.

I wrote about this topic in The Art of Losing Control, and it’s become particularly important to me after the mini-crisis I had last year, following my ayahuasca retreat. A friend referred to it as a ‘breakdown’ this week, which didn’t feel quite right, because it was also something beautiful and healing.

So what does ‘spiritual emergency’ mean exactly, and what can we do when they occur?

There is an overlap between spiritual / religious / ecstatic experiences, and psychosis. Psychiatry has historically viewed all religious experiences as pathological, labelling them ‘hysteria’, ‘ego-regression’ or ‘psychosis’ and ignoring any positive aspects. That’s partly because psychiatrists have tended to be anti-religious secular materialists, battling the church for authority over the care of souls.

However, some psychologists (and a few psychiatrists) have suggested an experience can be both spiritual and quasi-psychotic. This ‘transpersonal’ perspective was put forward by psychologists and thinkers like Frederic Myers, William James, Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, Ram Dass and Stanislaf Grof – who coined the term ‘Spiritual Emergency’ and brought out an excellent anthology with that title in 1980.

A spiritual emergency involves the sudden collapse of one’s habitual ego and customary sense of reality, and an opening to a different reality (which one could call the subconscious, or the archetypal layer, or the dream-world, or alternatively the Self or God – it’s a movement both downwards and upwards). It can involve a powerful sense of connection to all things, perhaps a transcending of time, space and matter, and a deep sense of meaning and awe. And it can also be extremely messy, painful, terrifying and dangerous, and have psychosis-like features like mania, ego-inflation, insomnia, voices, visions, ontological uncertainty and emotional disturbance. But unlike a psychotic illness, it can be a transition to growth, if handled sensitively.

Anthony told us: ‘It’s easy to get an idea of the life journey as a tidy evolution. But there’s another way humans grow, through revolution. The personality structure that’s evolved through childhood builds up like a building. And at some point in life it can be healthy for that to collapse. It can be a moment of growth, a journey forwards. But it doesn’t look like that. It looks like a piece of shit.’

Anna told us of her experience in her twenties:  ‘It was the most horrifying experience I ever had, and also the most awesome.’ Louisa said: ‘A spiritual emergency is when there’s an opening between the two worlds – the spiritual and the material – but it happens without maps or guides. What could be a successful integration into a larger self and reality becomes instead intensely terrifying, a failed initiation, which instead of leading to transformation, leads to fragmentation and sometimes to annihilation.’

What are the triggers?

Both Anna and Louisa spoke of how unresolved trauma was a trigger for their spiritual emergencies. For me too, the turbulence I felt after my ayahuasca retreat was partly a resurfacing of trauma from my late teens and early 20s. Trauma seems to create an ego structure that is more prone to what Tim Read calls ‘high archetypal penetrance’ (HAP) states – the subconscious and the transpersonal or spiritual dimension gets through the cracks easier.

There may also be a genetic predisposition to altered states – you might have some genes in your family that predispose you to schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder, which make you schizotypal without necessarily developing into a psychotic disorder. One notes that in some cultures, shamanism is considered an inherited ability, as are psychic powers – a tendency to absorption or dissociation gets passed through the genes, and this can lead to creativity and insight as well as disturbance, eccentricity and illness.

More immediate triggers include being physically isolated from one’s friends and family. My crisis occurred when I was in South America, Lou’s when she was alone in Dartmoor, Anna’s when she was in New York, Anthony’s when he was in China. Tim has written about a near-crisis he had while travelling in India. Such crises can occur at moments of difficult transition – going to university, say, or breaking up from a long-term relationship.

And then there are triggers like not eating or sleeping properly, or going on a spiritual retreat, or taking drugs. Tim says he has often encountered people who’ve had spiritual crises after attending spiritual retreats – he writes about this in his excellent book Walking Shadows: Archtypes and Psyche in Crisis and Growth, and notes that retreats often shift people’s egos but fail to help them integrate their experience in the days and weeks afterwards.

What does a spiritual emergency feel like?

Both Lou, Anthony and Anna spoke of a feeling of ego dissolution accompanied by physical dissolution – they felt they went out of their bodies, and the material world seems to dissolve. I had a similar experience on ayahuasca, as many do. It is terrifying, because you don’t know if you’ll come back, so I can’t imagine what it’s like to experience that for several days or weeks. But I wonder, too, if this dissolution of the ego and material reality is an insight into the actual nature of things – Buddhists say we perceive the world as made up of separate solid things (me, the table) where actually there is a continuum of energy. Buddhist monks try to get to a state where you go beyond the perception of solid things. But it is terrifying if that happens when you’re not ready for it.

The Rebel Powers That Do Thee Assay by Charles Sims

There’s also a collapse of boundaries – between the self and other people (can you read my thoughts, can I pick up your feelings and thoughts?); between you and the world (‘I can control traffic lights or even world events with my mind, it’s all connected to me’); between dream and reality. Anthony suggests we have at least two types of consciousness – a movie camera that projects waking reality, and a movie camera that projects our dreams. And in psychotic episodes, these two movies overlap, so the mythical movie of the dream-world gets superimposed on reality. Both Anna, Lou and Anthony had strong archetypal aspects to their experiences – religious imagery, messages, a sense of cosmic significance to their thoughts and acts. There can be intense surges of energy, powerful gusts of emotion, lights, visions, voices.

And there’s a deep ontological uncertainty. Anthony says he didn’t know if he was dead, or in some sort of altered bardo state. That was the same for me – for a week, I couldn’t work out if I was dreaming or in the afterlife. In Tim’s book, some of his case studies also don’t know if they’re dead or in heaven. It’s common on powerful psychedelic experiences to think you’re either dead or about to die. The ego interprets its dissolution as actual death. You find yourself still conscious and in some reality, but you can’t take anything for granted about how it works. In psychological terms, it’s a profound de-automatization. Your habitual automatic expectations of reality are dissolved. I would get on a plane and wonder if it would really take off or not, as if I somehow had to will it to take off (it was my dream – I was making it all happen).

What helps?

In his book, Tim Read emphasizes the importance of ‘set, setting and integration’ for navigating this sort of spiritual turbulence. This is also one of the main conclusions of my book, The Art of Losing Control.

Set refers to the mind-set one brings to the moment. In ecstatic states of consciousness – like psychedelic consciousness – our mind becomes extremely sensitive. It can swing from euphoria to terror in a moment. So you need to foster certain attitudes, above all mindfulness. Don’t worry about the past or future, focus on what is happening now. We need to try to remember ‘I’m in a spiritual crisis’ or ‘I’m tripping’ rather than get swept away by the powerful thoughts and sensations. Feel whatever you’re feeling, and observe it without attachment or aversion.

The breath is very important for this. It grounds us in the present moment, it relaxes our emotions, and it connects us to our body. Lou speaks of the ‘silvery chord of my breath’ being the only thing that connected her to her body and to physical reality. Someone once said we’re spiritual beings having an in-the-body experience – we need to connect to the body, enjoy this sensual material reality (nature is good for this too, so are hugs). It was also hugely important for me, in moments of panic, to breathe slowly, and remind myself ‘this will pass’.

A second important attitude is humility – not giving way to ego-inflation and Messianic grandiosity. Anthony says: ‘If you think you’re Jesus or the Buddha, that’s OK. But you’re also this person. And if I’m the Buddha, so are you.’ You have a glimpse of the infinite Self within you. But it’s within everyone, not just you. Relax. Don’t take yourself or the experience too seriously. You’re not controlling the universe. Have a sense of playfulness. Anthony talks about having an open and curious attitude to one’s experience – what does it feel like? How does this reality behave?

Third, we need to take care of ourselves. Yes, you’re the infinite cosmos, but you’re also this particular being in this particular body. Have patience and compassion for your ego and body. Look out for yourself – make sure you eat and sleep, don’t put your body in danger. Be polite, pay for things, even if you think it’s all a dream. Self-compassion is the key – even when I felt very alone and frightened, I rooted for myself. I was on my side, no matter how much the volatility swept away my tidy life-plans.

Painting by the sectioned artist Louis Wain

Secondly, setting is crucial. It helps if you have loving, understanding friends to support you while you are ‘transitioning’. When I came back from South America, I couldn’t tell what was real, I could barely understand conversations, and luckily my friends were there for me, and weren’t freaked out, because they’d had similar experiences (Lou is one of my best friends).  I loved getting hugs from my friends, I loved stroking my brother’s dog and cat, I loved sitting by his fire – I grounded myself in love and touch. Getting out into nature was also really healing for me. I avoided seeing people who wouldn’t get what I was going through.

Third, integration is very important. I came back to this reality within a week or so, but worked on the integration for several months, and am still working on it. I started seeing a therapist who is open to the transpersonal perspective. I found a community where I could practice meditation with others. There are also communities like the Spiritual Crisis Network and the Hearing Voices Network which offer support.

Sadly, western psychiatry is often the worst setting or integration process for this sort of experience. As Tim told us, most psychiatry is meaningless – it doesn’t accept that these sorts of experiences could have meaning, could be a stage in a person’s growth. Tim writes: ‘the medical intervention often serves to entrench stasis and impede growth’. Anna really wanted support during her crisis, but was terrified of being locked up and treated as totally mad. She was lucky, probably, not to be sectioned – most secure psychiatric wards are horrible, harsh, loveless and soulless places. Tim, who led the Emergency Psychiatry Service at Royal London Hospital, writes: ‘It is one of the great tragedies of psychiatry that our most vulnerable people are placed in the most unsuitable settings.’

And western culture is also rather an inhospitable and even hostile setting for such experiences – we don’t talk about them, and we see messy breakdowns as awful, shameful and frightening, something to hide away, rather than potentially something painful but wonderful, like giving birth!

However, just as there is a risk of materialist fundamentalism, there is also a risk of religious or spiritual fundamentalism – Anna talks about how she would feel these ecstatic experiences and hunger for them, but she came to see this was a way of bypassing her pain. We can use our spiritual experiences as ways of not dealing with this reality, this body, this life with all its messiness. Tim Read writes about one case study of spiritual narcissism, a young man who focused so exclusively on his spiritual experiences that he lost the capacity to negotiate this world. We need to balance our life in this world with our yearning for the transcendent, so we don’t become a ‘total space-cadet’ as one ayahuasca facilitator put it to me. We also need to be open to ambiguity and uncertainty, to sometimes not knowing precisely where we are on the path.

None of this is meant to deny that there are psychiatric illnesses which are mainly physical in origin, and which are not transitions to higher selves. I also know that, for some people, psychiatric medication is helpful and even life-saving. And sometimes being sectioned is necessary to protect people and society.

Tim and I are now going to put together a book of people’s first-person accounts of spiritual experiences, to answer the questions – what are they like from the inside, and what did people find helpful? The focus is on the practical things that help people, the set and setting. If you’d like to contribute, more details can be found here.

Finally, I wonder what these experiences say about the nature of reality and God. I think evangelical Christians can have a naïve view of God and the tidiness of religious experiences. You meet Jesus, who is totally loving and good for you, and instantly both this life and the afterlife are better. In fact, spiritual awakenings often feel like death, and can totally mess up your life. They’re closer to the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Burning Bush and the Book of Job, the God who turned Nebuchadnezzar into a beast and made Ezekiel lie on his side for 430 days.

What does it say about God, or the Self, that sometimes spiritual awakenings can destroy a life, can actually lead people to starve themselves or jump off a building in their search for transcendence (two instances mentioned in Tim’s book).

To me it suggests that sometimes the dissolution of the ego and the opening to the Self is incredibly rough, sometimes fatal. It can be a confrontation with a Shiva-like god – the cosmic creator and destroyer. It makes me hope that reincarnation is real, so we can hope that, while the archetypal call of the Self is sometimes harmful and even fatal to the individual, eventually, over many lives, we move towards the light. Or maybe God / the Self / the Tao doesn’t care about individuals, only the awakening of the species. Or maybe there is no God. Even if there isn’t, we can still help people navigate these rough moments of ego-dissolution, so that they can move towards positive and fulfilling lives, as Lou, Anthony, Anna and I have done.

Tim and I are now co-editing a book of first-person accounts of spiritual emergencies, with a focus on what practical advice can we share for people going through them. Find out more, and submit your synopsis for a chapter, here

Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake

Loneliness

Tom Lee recently completed the History of Emotions undergraduate module as part of his history degree at Queen Mary University of London. In this post, the first in a series of contributions by students to the History of Emotions blog, Tom reflects on loneliness as an emotional state, past and present. 


A few weeks ago, I was disturbed by a loud banging coming from outside my flat. Living on an estate in central London, random noise isn’t a rare occurrence, but this felt somehow different. No-one had seen Phil, my neighbour, for a couple of days – not unusual in itself as despite (or perhaps because of) living physically close to each other, we all tend to keep ourselves to ourselves – but pensioner Phil had been facing some serious health issues, and the noise was coming from his flat.

Poking my head out of my door, to be joined by those of the other neighbours on my floor, I saw the police smashing open Phil’s door, battering it with the same ram they would use when raiding a drug dealer’s den. We instantly all knew what had happened – the details confirmed to us a few minutes later. At some point in the previous 48 hours Phil had fallen, and in his weakened state he had died where he lay, alone.

The violence required to enter his home seemed incongruous with his gentle, calm and friendly nature. Phil’s front door hung from its hinges and next to it you could see the straw fedora that he always wore hanging on a coat hook (he was a stylish man!). Phil had no relatives that we were aware of, and apart from the occasional conversations he would have with some of us – displaying a genuine interest in our lives – very few social interactions. The council would hold his body for up to ten weeks while trying to locate any family, meaning any funeral or memorial was left in limbo. By that evening his door had been repaired and padlocked, with most residents in our block returning home oblivious of any of the events that had taken place there. It all seemed like a bleak, sad and lonely end to a life lived just a few metres from mine.

Living and dying alone, virtually unnoticed, in the centre of a huge bustling metropolis, the solitary nature of Phil’s death (and life) seemed to exemplify modern, urban, loneliness. This is a growing epidemic, one that murdered Labour M.P Jo Cox had highlighted, inspired by her own experiences of isolation. The seriousness of this emotional state resulted in an anti-loneliness commission being set up in her name, and a formal governmental response that includes a ‘minister for loneliness’, specifically appointed to tackle the issue.

Loneliness, we are told, is as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, twice as harmful as obesity, affects one in four of us and can increase the chances of early death by 20%. While Britain has been voted the loneliness capital of Europe, the rest of north-west Europe, North America and Japan report similarly high levels. Japan even has an anti-loneliness industry, with anti-loneliness cafes, hugging chairs and fake friends for hire as means to ease some of these negative effects.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942. Wikimedia Commons

The causes of modern loneliness seem logical – as urbanisation slowly shifted populations from smaller, tighter, rural communities into more anonymous city existences, social ties and support systems broke down, and incidences of loneliness increased. Mid-twentieth century artists such as Edward Hopper captured this atmosphere of loneliness in the modern metropolis. His 1942 piece Nighthawks is perhaps the most well-known example. Three customers sit in a late-night diner on an empty New York street. In true urban style, they don’t appear to be interacting, looking at or even acknowledging each other’s presence. Even the waiter is busying himself with his own tasks. As a viewer you are placed outside, also separated and removed from the subjects inside. Hopper later admitted that ‘unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city’.

The Beatles Eleanor Rigby also depicts this condition of urban loneliness, as experienced in post-war Britain. Written in 1966 its themes seem particularly relevant to this article. Its ongoing resonance has resulted in a commemorative statue, and a bidding war for the deeds of a Liverpudlian grave belonging to an Eleanor Rigby, despite Paul McCartney’s insistence that his protagonist was a fictional character.

Alongside changes in work patterns, family breakdowns, the rise of individualism, increased longevity, the growth of secularism and the emergence of social media, it is the unprecedented and dramatic rise of the single person dwelling, particularly prevalent from the mid-twentieth century, that has been particularly blamed for increasing incidences of isolating loneliness. Cities like Stockholm report that 60% of their households are now single-person dwellings, with parts of New York’s Manhattan approaching a staggering 94%. Articles abound that study this contemporary phenomena of lone living, but as historian K.D.M Snell points out, historical studies on loneliness itself are few and far between – and that in order to properly address it as a serious social issue, historical perspectives are crucial.

Prior to the late 18th century, ‘lonely’ wasn’t a subjective emotional state, but instead a means to describe isolated places rather than people. While the OED defines the word ‘loneliness’ as ‘the condition of being alone or solitary’, and places it as emerging at the end of the sixteenth century, its root word ‘lone’, meaning a state of being ‘without company’ precedes this by three centuries. For the OED actually feeling lonely – the negative ‘sense of…dejection arising from want of companionship or society’ – appeared in the 19th century. The timing of this shift, from an objective state of ‘aloneness’ to a painful and unwanted emotional reaction to it, aligns with historian of the emotions, Tiffany Watt-Smith’s mid-century positioning of it as reflecting the social dislocations of the period. She also acknowledges that the physical proximity of others does not necessarily limit incidences of loneliness. Modern urban loneliness can occur when surrounded by people, and the mid-Victorian era was when this experience was first reported.

Yet the idea that loneliness is a uniquely modern emotion doesn’t quite sit right. The emotional state of loneliness – experiencing the distress that estrangement, rejection or the painful awareness of separateness from others can cause – can be seen in literary representations going back centuries, even if the word itself is rarely used. The revenge of Frankenstein’s monster was partly motivated by a powerful desire for companionship: ‘I am an unfortunate and deserted creature; I look around and I have no relation or friend on earth’. A hundred years earlier and Robinson Crusoe’s near thirty years of isolation was also marked by a need for social interaction – for just ‘one fellow-creature, to have spoken to me and to have conversed with!’. The Wanderer, an old English poem found in the 10th century Exeter book (but likely to have been composed much earlier), is an elegiac meditation on loss, and the loneliness of the exile. It uses wintery images as metaphors for the isolation, melancholy and depression caused by the loss of home and kin. For the speaker, a warrior who refers to himself as ‘the friendless one’, ‘there is none living to whom I dare clearly speak of my innermost thought’. While the word ‘loneliness’ isn’t used, even in modern translations, it is clear that this is the emotional state he is experiencing.

Robinson Crusoe (1898), C.E. Brock. Europeana Collections

These examples of exiled, marooned or alienated characters suggest that loneliness is an involuntary state, contrasting with the idea of solitude – something people can choose to seek out. While existing alone during the prehistoric, ancient and early modern periods could often be a physically dangerous condition – made vulnerable to life’s ravages by a lack of social sustenance – the opportunities for lone living were also limited. Unless pursuing religious or spiritual solitude, extended family, community and kin provided essential physical and emotional support for many. Choosing to be alone could in fact provoke suspicion. Writing in 1677, diarist John Evelyn felt that solitariness could ‘dissolve’ the world – threatening the very existence of life – as it ‘produces ignorance, renders us barbarous, feeds revenge, disposes us to envy, creates witches and dispeoples the world’.

Seeking out solitude as part of a spiritual life crosses many cultures and historical periods. The rishis of Vedic India, the Sibyls of ancient Greece and various Christian ascetic hermits all valued the power of ‘aloneness’ as a means of initiating transformative spiritual experiences.

St Paul, the first hermit (not looking that ‘alone’!) Wellcome collection

Introspection and melancholy were prized emotions for some British elites of the Georgian period, but were not necessarily states they wished to experience personally. As a means of demonstrating their own elevated emotional capacities, a brief craze among 18th century wealthy landowners saw ‘ornamental’ hermits paid to live a solitary life in their gardens, often for years – an early forerunner for the garden gnome!

While being alone can lead to feelings of isolation, the element of choice connected to these examples of ‘aloneness’ is what defines and differentiates them from the involuntary state of loneliness.

It turned out that my neighbour Phil did have family. The council managed to locate them 6 weeks after his death. It also turns out that his brothers had been trying, for some time, to track Phil down. They wanted to reunite with him and their estrangement was actually something Phil had instigated, no doubt for a variety of reasons, several decades ago. His solitary life was not, it seems, something forced upon him, and his desire to live as he did, with minimal social interaction, was something he perhaps valued. His funeral was attended by many of his long-lost family, and by several people from his London existence who had known and appreciated his gentle nature and his occasional calm, unobtrusive interest in their lives. Phil’s death and life was not necessarily the lonely one that I had imagined. Instead of exemplifying modern, urban, and involuntary loneliness it was perhaps a choice that reflected his own desire for solitude and aloneness.


Visit Tom Lee’s website here

Follow Tom on Twitter: @pranava1008


Further Reading

Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, A Call to Action

Katie Hafner, Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness, NY Times

James Peacock, Edward Hopper: the artist who evoked urban loneliness and disappointment with beautiful clarity

George Monbiot, The Age of Loneliness, New Statesman

Ami Rokach (ed.) The Correlates of Loneliness (Sharjah: Bentham Science Publishers, 2017)

Tiffany Watt Smith, The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust. (London: Profile Books, 2016)

K. D. M. Snell, The rise of living alone and loneliness in history, Social History, 42:1, (2017),pp.2-28

Barbara Taylor, Are we more lonely than our ancestors? BBC

 

The mystical expatriates and the invention of Californian spirituality

Gerald Heard (left), Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda

Back in October I went on a 10-day ayahuasca retreat in the Peruvian jungle. While there, I picked up a little novel by Christopher Isherwood called A Single Man. I don’t know why I picked up that particular book. Perhaps because it was slim, so I could finish it while at the retreat. Also, all the other books in the retreat’s soggy jungle bookshelf looked dreadfully New Age. So I took Isherwood back to my jungle hut, and read his book in a day or so, swinging in my hammock.

A Single Man follows a day in the life of George, an ageing English lecturer at a Californian university, who is coping with the death of his lover, Jim. It’s like a queer Mrs Dalloway. I particularly enjoyed its exploration of the self, or rather, the multiple selves we are throughout the day, and the multiple levels of consciousness we shift through – hence the irony of the title.

When George awakes there is no George, just an awareness – ‘that which has awoken lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognized I’ – and then the central cortex, ‘that grim disciplinarian’, kicks in and tells the body to get up. It gets dressed and becomes a He, with a name. George drives down the freeway to the campus and goes into a sort of highway hypnosis, and then arrives:

In ten minutes, George will have to be George, the George they have named and will recognize…He is all actor now…hastening through the backstage world of props and lamps and stagehands.

And so on, through the banal and funny encounters of the day – lecturing George, George on too much coffee, George at the gym, drunk George, horny George trying to pick up a boy. It’s all deftly observed, and it fitted strangely with what I was experiencing on ayahuasca – the many levels of self, right down to the deep consciousness where there is no ‘George’, and we are all perhaps connected. There is a quiet mysticism implicit in A Single Man, a searching for that which remains when all our costumes have been removed.

A month or so after the ayahuasca retreat, I felt the urge to read more Isherwood. I knew he’d written the stories which the musical Cabaret was based on, so I read Goodbye to Berlin, and enjoyed that too. After that, I started to find out about his extraordinary life, and his vast, glittering network of friends and lovers.

What interests me most about Isherwood is his relationship to Indian spirituality, and to Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard. These three were nicknamed the ‘mystical expatriates’ by another mystical expat, Alan Watts.

All four were key figures in the development of the Californian counter-culture – to them (among others) we owe its embrace of eastern spirituality, its championing of the ‘perennial philosophy’ (everything except Christianity), its veneration for psychedelic drugs as spiritual technologies, its combination of science and religion into an empirical spirituality and evolutionary mysticism, its rejection of Christian notions of sin, and its unabashed celebration of the body and sex to create an ‘embodied spirituality’ that is by now familiar to us. They also began to sketch out a new politics of spirituality and map for society – it’s still nascent, but may become more important in coming decades.

The tabernacle of Californian spirituality was erected by the British ‘mystical expatriates’. Which is quite unlikely, considering that all four were public school-educated English gents, emerging from the stiff remains of the British Empire. Perhaps that’s the point – they, like me, were interested in ecstasy as a means of escaping from the uptight inhibitions of polite English culture. Ecstasy was a flight from Englishness.

Alan Watts

And if they could find that ecstasy at the feet of former subjects of the British Empire – all the better. Alan Watts, recalling his conversion to Buddhism while at boarding school, writes:

We were being trained as officers for the troops of the British Empire. So I went the Wrong Way, and espoused one of the major religions of the people ruled by that Empire.

In 1938, Heard and Huxley introduced Isherwood to a Hindu guru named Swami Prabhavananda, who set up the Vedanta Society of Southern California (Vedanta is a form of Hindu mysticism developed by Ramakrishna and Vivekananda). Huxley and Heard were too individualistic to remain his disciples – Heard set up his own commune for a few years, while both Huxley and Heard would later become mentors for Esalen, the hub of Sixties Californian spirituality.

But Isherwood stayed loyal to his guru his whole life, in his own way. He even tried, briefly, to be a novitiate, and moved into the Vedanta Centre full-time during World War Two, meditating and doing puja for several hours a day, much to the horror of the British literary establishment – it was one thing to become an Anglican like TS Eliot or a Catholic like Graham Greene, but to follow an Oriental guru? It was far less normal then than now.

He published an account of his spiritual journey at the end of his life, called My Guru and His Disciple. It got puzzled reviews and is not a big seller  compared to his novels, but I think it’s a fascinating book. It’s interesting because it’s so frank and unromantic about the spiritual life. Where Alan Watts basically bullshitted his way to guru status while secretly being an alcoholic and treating his wives like crap, Isherwood is totally upfront about his boredom, his frustration, his vanity, his sexual escapades, recounted in the entries of his diary:

Why am I joining these obsolete Hindus? What possible relevance can their beliefs have to the world of 1943?

What were all these agonies and struggles for?

Have I really got to spend the rest of my life with these people?

This place smells of renunciation, fog, and salad.

There’s nothing like a puja for stirring up lust.

We see the tension between his worldly ambition and his spiritual yearning – he wants self-transcendence, yet he also can’t bear the idea of losing his personality or changing his name to take on a Hindu name. ‘Christopher Isherwood’ is, after all, his greatest work of art.

There’s also an abiding tension between his desire for renunciation and his love of the body and sex. He’s constantly running off to shag Tennessee Williams, say, or to pick up a stranger on the beaches of Santa Monica. His guru always accepts him back – perhaps because his celebrity status made him so useful to the Vedanta movement (his translation of the Bhagavad Gita sold over a million copies, while his life of Ramakrishna was one of Steve Jobs’ favourite books).

His love of the world, sex and his self eventually won out. He left the Centre after the war ended, returning to his Hollywood life of writing, networking, boozing and shagging (his biographer estimates he shagged over 1000 men in his long life). He eventually settled down with a man thirty years his junior, and they lived in marital bliss for three decades. But he never lost contact with his guru, visited him for the rest of his life, and found solace in the thought of him in his final weeks.

Reviewers wondered what the point of the book was – he didn’t seem to have made much progress on the journey. Literary types can’t stand religious conversions, while New Agers want their spiritual tracts to be simplistic maxims from cartoon gurus like Alan Watts or Eckhart Tolle. Isherwood is far more conflicted than that. There is indeed something ridiculous about him practicing meditation in the hills of Hollywood as the Blitz rages – his diary reads:

August 13. Huge German air attacks on England. Invasion is expected hourly. I feel terribly depressed, but not frantic. It’s amazing how much my ‘sits’ help, however badly and unwillingly I do them.

In their collective escape from the Blitz, their shrugging off of the weight of the European Past, their denial of sin, and their joyful embrace of the Eternal Now, were the mystical expatriates abandoning their tribe at a time of crisis, and failing to face up to the suffering caused by the British Empire? Were they even continuing that Empire’s traditions of appropriation?

Maybe. On the other hand, Isherwood et al were doing important work. They were building a bridge between the West and Eastern spirituality: ‘To live this synthesis of East and West is the most valuable kind of pioneer work I can imagine – never mind who approves or disapproves.’

The mystical expats opened up new horizons for Western spirituality, which we all enjoy today. As Philip Goldberg writes in American Veda:

Their firepower, like the arsenal of a revolutionary vanguard, would radically transform the way large numbers of people understand and practice religion.

They helped to create the modern spiritual landscape, in which most Americans embrace a form of perennialism (ie the belief that Christianity is not the only path to God), in which contemplation has enjoyed its biggest revival since the Reformation, in which science and spirituality are seen as allies, and Indian religion has become so mainstream that Newsweek declared ‘we’re all Hindus now’.  They helped to democratize mysticism for the masses, so that half of Americans now claim to have had a mystical experience.

They gave people a new vocabulary for altered states and mystical experiences, and a new set of practices for getting there. Isherwood writes:  ‘I needed a brand-new vocabulary and here it was…untainted by disgusting old associations with clergymen’s sermons, schoolmasters’ pep talks, politicians’ patriotic speeches’.

While Heard and Huxley were scientifically-literate and developed the empirical mysticism or ‘neurotheology’ (Huxley’s phrase) which we see today in the science of mindfulness and psychedelics, Isherwood took himself as his own scientific experiment, a ‘specimen to be examined and classified’ using ‘the detailed skill and truthful approach of a scientific investigator’.

And, in My Guru and His Disciple, he gave us a wonderfully unvarnished account of spiritual mediocrity. As Pema Chodron says, we spend most of our spiritual lives in the middle – not completely lost, yet not completely saved. Just muddling through.

Blinded or Enlightened by Shame: Shame as a Motif in Julian of Norwich’s Writings

Louise Klinke Øhrstrøm is a Danish author and translator. She has translated Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love from Middle English into Danish (Boedal, 2010) and studied Julian’s texts at University of East Anglia (2011-2013).

Many readers may know the 14th-century-mystic and writer Julian of Norwich’s famous words from Revelations of Divine Love: “All shall be well”. Julian also phrases this notion another way: “and so schalle all schame turn in to wyrschyppe” (ST 758). Throughout her writings, she shows particular interest in what the emotion – or state – of shame does to man.

Although the word ‘shame’ only appears a few times in Revelations of Divine Love, a close reading of the figurative language of both the short and the long text suggests that shame is a key motif in Julian of Norwich’s literary work and in her theology. Exploring the ways in which Julian explicitly uses the words ‘shame’, ‘ashamed’ and ‘shameful’ in similar but also, at times, acutely different fashions, reveals that shame is presented as a complex and hybrid concept in Revelations of Divine Love. On the one hand, shame is described as a necessary part of accepting one’s guilt of falling into sin, which is “shameful” (LT 573). The sight of our sins is supposed to make us “ashamd of our selfe” (ST 619), recognising the “grete shame…[that we have] defoulyd the fair ymage of god” (LT 561). On the other hand, Julian underlines that there is no reason to be ashamed of our sins because God is able to turn any sin into worship, just like he did with biblical characters such as David, Maria Magdalena, Peter and Paulus who “are knowen in the Church in erth with her synnes, & it is to hem no schame, but is turnyd hem to worship” (LT 561). Julian repeats this point in several ways in Revelations of Divine Love such as “syn is na schame bot wiscippe to mann” (ST 756) and “ffor I saw full sekirly, that ever as our contrarioust werkyth to us here in erth peyne, shame and sorow ryth so on the contrariewise grace werkyth to us in hevyn, solace, worship & bliss” (LT 574).

According to Julian, we can look at ourselves in two ways, a higher and lower ‘beholding’. The higher makes us dismiss shame, while the lower encourages shame: “ffor the heyer beholding kepith us in Gostly solace & trew enjoying in God. That other that is the lower beholding kepith us in drede & makith us ashamyd of our selfe” (ST 623). Julian also states that the way in which God will transform sin into worship will leave all shame with the devil in the end: “for all that god sufferith him to doe turnith us to joye, & him to shame & wo” (LT 534). Thus Revelations of Divine Love Showing of Love presents a number of understandings of shame, which Julian touches explicitly on by using the word ‘shame’.

Tine Gjessø, The Sweet Eye of Pity and Love, 2018 (Inspired by Julian of Norwich)

However, it is through the figurative language in Showing of Love that Julian’s complex theorising of shame really unfolds and becomes a key motif in the texts. By using figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, allegories, parables, symbols, metonymies, examples and personifications, Julian performs shame in a literary way which engages the reader much more significantly than in the passages where ‘shame’ is explicitly mentioned.

The key metaphor when it comes to shame is “gastelye blyndehede” (ST 774), which Julian examines in many ways throughout Revelations of Divine Love. Julian mainly uses this metaphor for a condition where man is too ashamed to see God and thus cannot recognise his own worth as a loved creature. She also uses the metaphor to stress that shame can blind human beings in a way that hinders self-acceptance and blurs a clear understanding of life and other people. Mist is used as a simile that expresses this losing of sight too. According to Julian, “it makith as it were a thick myst aforne the eye of the soule” when we occupy ourselves too much with other people’s sins which results in that “we may not for the tyme se the fairehede of God” (LT 617).

Knowing that Revelations of Divine Love is based on a number of visions, it is not surprising that the contradiction of ‘being able to see’ and ‘being blind’ is important to Julian, and using these physical senses in a figurative way is clearly inspired by the New Testament where Jesus describes the Pharisees as “blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:14) and “blind guides” (Matthew 23:15).  However, the interesting point about Julian’s metaphor of “gastelye blyndehede” is that she uses it in a slightly different way than it is used in the New Testament. When Jesus criticises the Pharisees for being spiritually blind, he is criticising their focus on superficial rituals and material matters. Accusing them of having been blinded by pride, Jesus says: “Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.” (Matthew 23:25-27).  While Julian also stresses that spiritual blindness implies delusions and is the main barrier between man and God, her focus is not on how pride blinds man, but on how shame blinds man.

Stating that “man is blindid in this life” (LT 580), and that “the blindnes that we have is of Adam” (LT 582), Julian refers to the shame that Adam and Eve felt in Eden after having eaten of the forbidden fruit. According to Julian, this shame still torments human beings; “we falyn ageyn into blindhede”, and we “arn made derke & so blinde that onethys we can taken ony comfort” (LT 585). She also uses “Adams old Kirtle” (LT 584) as a symbol of that shame and contrasts it to “the larghede of his [God’s] clotthyng” (LT 580) and the metaphor that God “is our clotheing that for love wrappith us, halseth us, & all beclosyth us for tender love – that hee may never leave us” (LT 519). Shame is, in other words, something which represents us, just like clothes do, but also something that we, potentially, can take off and ask God to replace with something better.

Both images, shame as spiritual blindness and shame as an old tunic, we find in The Parable of the Lord and the Servant in chapter 51 of the long text, which Julian presents as an essential part of Revelations of Divine Love by comparing it to an ABC when it comes to understanding God: “in this mervelous Example I have techyng with me as it were the begynnyng of an ABC where by I may have sum Vnderstondyng of our Lodis menyng” (LT 583). The parable shares similarities with the parable of the prodigal son from the Gospel of Luke chapter 15. A servant stands before his lord and is sent on a certain mission. Eager to please his lord, the servant not only walks but runs to fulfil the mission. Consequently, the servant falls in a slough and cannot get up. He “gronith & monith & walith, & writhith but he ne may rysen ne helpen hymself be no manner wey” (LT 577). The servant is in great despair. His tunic is dirty and torn apart. His body is heavy. He cannot turn his gaze to his lord.

In the following chapters, Julian interprets the servant as being Adam and as being Christ. Reading the servant as Adam, Julian implies that the servant’s agony and turning away is similar to Adam’s hiding in shame in the Garden of Eden. By emphasising that Adam is in all men, she also suggests that the human condition is this blindness and turning away from God in shame. When interpreting the servant as being Christ, she emphasises that Christ always had his gaze on the lord and adds another section to the parable where Christ is risen up from the slough, and where his dirty tunic is replaced with a white and shiny one. By stating that “we have in us our Lord Jesus uprysen, we have in us pe wretchidnes & pe mischefe of Adams ffallyng deyand” (LT 585), Julian concludes that we also have the potential to rise from our shame and have our dirty tunic replaced by a white one. In the long text, she uses several other metaphors to explain the key steps towards this transformation: We are to accept that we need “helyng” (LT 619) from our spiritual blindness, to receive compassion from our “Moder Criste” (LT 595) and to realise that “we be his Corone” (LT 584) and that “he made mans soule to ben his owen cyte” (LT 580).

Louise Klinke Øhrstrøm

Thus you could argue that Julian actually understands salvation as a process of discerning shame, recognising the fall (and the “constructive” shame) while rejecting the feeling of unworthiness (the “destructive” shame) and rising in dignity. Although Julian wrote her texts more than 600 years ago, this approach to shame seems rather modern and relevant in the context of recent shame studies that discuss the social functions of shame while paying attention to the way in which shame can also be “blinding”

***

ST (Short Text): The Amherst manuscript, BL Additional 37790, British Library, London

LT (Long Text): The MS Sloane 2499 manuscript, British Library, London

Edition: Julian of Norwich, Showing of love: Extant Texts and Translation, ed. by Sr. Anna Maria Reynolds and Julia Bolton Holloway (Firenze: Sismel, 2001)

Huautla, hippies and hongos

A mural in Huautla commemorating Maria Sabina

I’m travelling in Mexico, researching the indigenous culture of magic mushrooms, or hongos as they are called here. Last weekend, I visited Huautla de Jimenez, a town eight hours drive from Mexico City, in the state of Oaxaca. It’s a remote mountain town, mainly populated by Mazatec Indians who speak Mazatec and also communicate through whistling. This little town was where Westerners discovered magic mushrooms. It was the spark that started the fire of the psychedelic counter-culture in the 1960s.

I should say at the outset that I’m no Mexico expert, nor an anthropologist or ethno-botanist. I travelled with two historians of Mexico – Ben Smith of Warwick University and Nathanial Morris of Oxford – who are researching an AHRC project on the war on drugs. In the meantime here are my early impressions (I’ll correct my errors if you point them out).

There are records of Indian tribes taking mushrooms since at least the time of the conquistadors. Friars write disapprovingly of the Aztecs taking a substance they called teonanacatl, or ‘flesh of the gods’, in order to prophesy and discover the will of their gods – perhaps it was through mushrooms that they arrived at the uncanny prophesy that bearded men would come from the East and rule over them. They also took mushrooms for fun – there’s an anecdote of the Aztec aristocracy consuming them at a wedding dance.

Western ethno-botanists assumed that teonanocatl was peyote, which western scientists discovered was psycho-active in the 19th century. But in the 1930s, several scholars suggested it might be mushrooms instead – a theory finally proved in 1938 by famed ethno-botanist Richard Evans-Schultes, when he visited Huautla and identified the shrooms. He realized there are as many as 30 types of Mexican mushrooms which contain psilocybin, a psychedelic drug. The Mazatec Indians still consumed them in ceremonies called veladas, in which shamans called curanderas used them to cure people of illnesses, physical and spiritual.

In the 1950s, a New York banker called Gordon Wasson made numerous laborious journeys to Huautla, driven by a passion for mushrooms and a desire to become the first Westerner to consume the hongos. In 1955, he got his wish. A curandera called Maria Sabina allowed him and his photographer into a velada after Wasson made up a story about needing the hongos‘ help to cure his sick son.

He was amazed by the experience. ‘For the first time, the word ecstasy took on a real meaning. For the first time it did not mean someone else’s state of mind.’ He drew on the theory of Aldous Huxley that psychedelics give one temporary access to the same mystical experience attained by religious virtuosos like St John of the Cross, and this experience lies at the esoteric core of all religions.

Although Wasson had said he would protect the secrecy of the sacred ritual, he sold the story and photographs of the velada for several thousand dollars to Life magazine, where a sub-editor coined the phrase ‘magic mushrooms’. He also gave enough clues in his writing for the curious to be able to identify the village as Huautla. His article, published in 1958, was a smash hit and opened the floodgates for an extraordinary influx of hippy spiritual-seekers in the 1960s, who camped outside Huautla. Initially, they sought out Maria Sabina for veladas, but soon the locals were selling them the mushrooms and they were taking them wherever and whenever they felt like it, in the day, in the fields and rivers, with other substances, even dancing naked in the streets, thereby breaking Mazatec taboos about the proper way to treat the sacred medicine.

‘They were something remarkable’, remembers Lleno, a Huautla local who was a boy in the Sixties. ‘With their long hair, crazy clothes and rock music, always saying ‘peace and love’. Some of the locals were scared of them, although they also influenced the culture here – young people started growing their hair and listening to rock.’ Eventually, the municipal president had enough and called in the army in 1969, who shipped out the hippies in buses. The arrival of the army changed the town forever, bringing the semi-autonomous Mazatec town under the control of the national government.

The Army booted out the hippies in 1970.

There are tall stories about all kinds of celebrities descending on Huautla during that brief mushroom frenzy – John Lennon, Simon and Garfunkel – but we do know for sure that the psychologist Timothy Leary visited the town, took the shrooms, had a mystical experience, then returned to Harvard to establish the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which spread the gospel of psychedelics throughout western culture.

Leary and Wasson helped to shape the idea that psychedelics lead to a mystical, ecstatic experience, an experience of unitive consciousness beyond time, space and culture. This idea is still very influential in American psychedelic science – in 2006, American researchers at John Hopkins University started to study psilocybin again after a hiatus of 40 years, with a paper called ‘Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences.’ This mystical experience of being one with all things helps free people from their habitual ego patterns and releases them – according to recent trials – from depression, addiction, even fear of death.

There’s much to celebrate in recent Western psychedelic research, but it’s problematic to claim that psychedelics always – or even usually – lead to mystical experiences of unitive consciousness. The problem with this theory, as cultural historian Andy Letcher pointed out in his book Shroom, is that it ignores the way different cultures treat psychedelic substances, and reduces the weird variety of freaky experiences people can have into one box, called ‘core mystical experience’.

The idea psychedelics take us to some mystical state beyond culture is itself culture-bound – it’s the product of the culture of American transcendentalism, of William James, and of Aldous Huxley’s perennialist mysticism. The participants in John Hopkins’ trials have mystical experiences partly because that’s what they’re expected to have –  the mind responds to the expectations and theories we bring to it, through what the philosopher Ian Hacking calls ‘looping effects’. People in Pentecostal churches encounter the Holy Spirit because they expect to…and so on.

Other cultures frame psychedelic experiences in different ways, leading to different mental outcomes. The anthropologist Nicholas Langlitz has shown that European psychedelic laboratories, like those of Zurich and Imperial College, tend to be more secular and Freudian, and to use phrases like ‘ego-death’ or ‘psychosis-imitation’ rather than ‘mystical experience’. Participants in their labs obediently report fewer mystical experiences.

The Mazatec think about hongos in their own way. They naturally do not take mushrooms for an ecstatic release from the disenchantment of Western modernity. Sabina said: ‘Before Wasson nobody took the mushrooms only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well.’ The mushrooms were a form of medicine for those without access to proper healthcare, let alone psychotherapy or psychiatry. ‘We didn’t take them out of curiosity’, says Florencio Carrera, an elderly former teacher in Huautla. ‘We took them out of necessity’.

Rather than an ecstatic connection to the cosmos, ‘ultimate Mind’ or some such lofty transcendental goal, the Mazatecs took (and occasionally still take) mushrooms to connect to local saints or local spirits, to help with local problems in their relationships, work or health. As David Luke of Greenwich University has put it, theirs is a horizontal transcendence, rather than the vertical individualist transcendence of Wasson, Leary, Huxley et al.

The Mazatec also have a different model of illness, believing that some illnesses or accidents are caused by sorcery, by external enchantment. You could claim, as some anthropologists do, that while Westerners think emotional problems are caused by trauma in their past which are resolved through acceptance and insight, Mazatecs are more likely to think emotional problems are caused by external events – curses by your enemies or offences against the local spirits – which are resolved through magic.

However, you can over-emphasize the differences between Mazatec and Western healing cultures. Today, one also notices some similarities.

I visited a local curandera called Profesora Elodia, who lives in a concrete bungalow on the outskirts of Huautla. As in a Harley Street surgery, I waited outside while Elodia finished a consultation with a local. Then Elodia guided me in to her tiny shrine room, sat me down, and asked how she could help. Like Wasson, I made up a story to get access, claiming I was suffering from low energy and poor sleep (I was half-worried she would misunderstand me and give me a herbal cure for impotence, leading to unintended results). She asked me to write down my name and birthplace, and then began to ask the spirits for help for Julian from the country of London. She said prayers to the saints in Spanish, and prayers in Mazatec too, perhaps to the local spirits or duendes. Then she rubbed an egg all over my body, pushed some pressure points, blew water in my face, sucked the air around me, lit a candle and said a prayer to protect me from my enemies. So far, so magical.

But she also offered therapeutic advice that wasn’t so far from what I’d be offered by a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist or mindfulness life-coach. She told me to have faith in myself, to believe I can succeed in my work. She told me not to think too much about the past or future, but focus on the present. She spoke in parables – see how this water runs down the hill, be like that, let the past go. When I spoke a bit about family troubles, she told me not to let my parents’ problems ruin my life, or I’d transmit them to my own children.

I asked her about the mushrooms, and what they can do, and she said: ‘They help you realize things you haven’t been paying attention to, in your soul.’ Again, that’s pretty close to what you’d hear from psychedelic therapists working in western research labs. Rosalind Watts, an NHS therapist who works at Imperial College’s psychedelic lab, says mushrooms help you confront and accept your shadow – a Jungian term for the parts of the psyche you have ignored or repressed.

Local Mazatecs also spoke of how mushrooms helped them confront and integrate trauma from their past – Florencio said mushrooms helped him overcome emotional problems after he was in a car crash, while another lady (whose name I’ll keep confidential) told us that she first took mushrooms when she was 14 after a trauma: ‘Something bad happened to me and I needed help. It helps young people find a reason to live. It can be scary, especially if people have been raped. You feel very afraid but afterwards you feel better. You can let it go.’ Elodia said: ‘The mushrooms let you remove the weight you have been carrying and pick yourself up.’

Both Westerners and Mazatecs also speak of feeling more connected to nature through mushrooms – Maria Sabina spoke of how, when she first took mushrooms as an adolescent, she felt all of nature was filled with God and speaking to her. That’s not so far from a Western-style mystical experience. I don’t know to what extent contemporary Mazatecs have incorporated Western psychological concepts into their healing discourse. If so, it shows that cultures aren’t hermetically sealed, but leak into each other. Or perhaps certain healing mechanisms are universal – curanderos, like CBT or mindfulness coaches, emphasize the importance of concentration, discipline, integrity.

And most medical procedures rely at least partly on the faith and hope of the patient. ‘Those that believe are healed’, said Sabina. Sadly, she felt the mushrooms lost some of their power once the hippies had desecrated the secret ritual. She became something of a pariah in Huautla, although once she was dead she was almost canonized, and is now celebrated in a large statue of her standing on a mushroom as you enter the town. Florencio likewise laments: ‘The arrival of the hippies swept away the old ways, and the mysticism and magic of Huautla.’

It’s interesting to wonder if the same will happen with Western psychedelic medicine, as it goes from being the latest new wonder drug to something familiar, standardized and commodified. Even as rational a therapy as CBT no longer works as well as it did in the 1960s, when it was the new wonder therapy. Will the miracle results of psilocybin therapy level off in a decade or two?

Today, Huautla has mushroom regalia festooned all over the town in a bid to bring the tourists back, but we hardly saw any – the town is too far away from Mexico City or Oaxaca City. Instead, the new mushroom Mecca is San Jose del Pacifico, a tiny town of 700 people conveniently located on the main highway from Oaxaca City to the beaches of Puerto Escondido.

The first hippies arrived here in the early 70s, perhaps after having been booted out from Huautla – the locals say they arrived after a solar eclipse. They bought huts in the hills, and found a local curandero to sell them mushrooms. Gradually the village became a New Age hot-spot, offering tourists a menu of therapies like Reiki, hydrotherapy, sweat lodges and mushrooms. ‘The gringos mainly take them in the day, and wander in the forest or by the river’, says a local young woman. ‘Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they cry, sometimes they stare at trees. They don’t bother anyone.’ I asked her if the locals in San Jose ever take them. ‘Oh no’, she said. ‘Only the gringos.’ 

Integrating ayahuasca into western healthcare (part 2)

Here is part 2 of my interview with pioneering researcher Milan Scheidegger, who works in the psychedelics lab at University of Zurich. You can read part 1 here. In this half of the interview, we discuss how to translate aspects of indigenous ayahuasca rituals – such as the shaman or sacred plant songs – into the context of western healthcare. We also discuss Milan’s plans to establish a psychedelic healing clinic in Switzerland.

In terms of translating the elements of indigenous psychedelic rituals into a western context, the role of the shaman is taken by a therapist. The therapist becomes a spiritual guide, not just someone you talk to. They acquire a sort of vatic standing. What do you think of the scientist as shaman?

It’s a controversial topic. In Switzerland, we had a psychiatrist called Samuel Widmer, who offered psycholytic therapy with substances like LSD and MDMA with special regulatory permission. During his work, he moved from being a clinical psychiatrist to being a spiritual guru, offering tantra retreats with substances. He acquired many followers dressed in white, who lived in a commune. [He also had two wives and preached free love.]

Similar to what happened with Timothy Leary and Ram Dass? Timothy Leary tried to set up a religion after he was fired from Harvard…

Yes somewhat. These things can happen also in other parts of society, it is not solely related to psychedelics. It can be dangerous of course, this change in social role and dynamic. That’s why this type of work poses ethical challenges in terms of the personal integrity of the facilitator. What is their motivation in doing this work? Is it just a narcissistic, histrionic motivation to become a guru, or is it a humble motivation to reduce human suffering? Responsible use of psychedelics is related to the ability of the therapists to question their own role, providing a safe space for the transformation to happen, rather than strongly guiding the role. Yeah, it’s a problem we can’t get rid of. There are also guru-type personalities in other realms of society.

Indeed, and in other realms of therapy and psychiatry too. Then there’s the role of nature in the psychedelic healing process. You did a masters on deep ecology, didn’t you? Most psychedelic research is done in the lab, rather than deep in nature.

Yes. Our psilocybin meditation study is the only study that took place in an aesthetically pleasing retreat centre in nature. Obviously this type of setting has a huge influence on the experience of participants. I remember my own ayahuasca experience in the jungle, where one’s ego boundaries dissolve and you can’t distinguish anymore if the sounds from the animals are out there or in here. That’s why I believe that the widespread use of psychoactive plants in human cultures must have some deep ecological function. My colleague Matthias Forstmann recently published an interesting study on how lifetime experience with psychedelics predicts pro-environmental behavior through an increase in nature-relatedness. They argue that the mechanism is that, through dissolving our ego boundaries, we start to self-identify with nature. When the distinction between self and nature becomes more permeable, we incorporate nature into our self-concept and start to behave more responsibly. That is very similar to taking a non-dual perspective, then hurting somebody out there is actually damaging yourself. There are huge ethical implications in deep ecological thinking.

So you’d prefer the psychedelic clinic of the future to be in some beautiful natural setting?

Yes, the ideal setting would be a retreat centre in nature, offering inpatient treatments for 1-3 weeks with followup outpatient care. The retreat facilitates transformation because it takes patients out of their habitual dysfunctional settings, offering psychotherapy, body-work, music therapy, nature-exposures, consciousness-altering rituals, psycho-education and integration. When psychotherapy becomes more experiential, than just cognitive, people are more likely to change.

What about the importance of the group. Psychedelic research tends to study individuals. Do you think groups are the best setting?

From our experience with the psilocybin meditation study and my participation in indigenous rituals, a group seems to be an ideal setting for psychedelic therapy. The level of solidarity can be very deep and therapeutic, especially when participants share their experience in a group. We are all part of a life process, creating an interpersonal conscious field together through our relationships, you get to see that others’ experiences can mirror your own, to listen to similar stories which can also reveal your own patterns and struggles. It’s not different from other types of group psychotherapy. However, it’s difficult to get regulatory permission to work with psychedelic substances in groups because it’s not yet established within the biomedical treatment paradigm. The Swiss Society for Psycholytic Therapy had special permission from 1988-1993 to work in groups of patients, but most of the clinical studies are of individuals.

The maloka at the Temple of the Way of Light, a western-indigenous ayahuasca centre in Peru

How about the role of music? Could you tell me about your work with the Sound Trance Institute.

At the World Ayahuasca Conference 2014 in Ibiza, Joel Olivé – an ethnomusician from Spain – was giving a concert with archaic instruments. I was very touched by the resonance field and collective space of consciousness that opened up in the conference hall just through Joel’s playing of the archaic instruments.

What are archaic instruments?

The oldest archaic instrument of course is our own voice. Other instruments include didgeridoos, monochord, drums, cymbals, rattles, kalimbas, singing bowls, and symphonic gongs. It’s acoustic instruments that have been used by tribal societies from all over the world to create sound vibrations that feel very organic, and which facilitate entrance into trance states. When archaic instruments are used in a specific sequence, they induce states of consciousness that are very similar to psychedelic therapy and shamanic rituals. Peter Hess, a German psychiatrist and music therapist developed the so-called Gong Therapy, a new form of receptive sound therapy, that can be better integrated in our culture and society. As a musician, I became very inspired and passionate about this approach. Now I am training with Peter and Joel and my vision is to combine music therapy with psychedelic-assisted therapy in the future.

You’ve also done research into psychedelics and meditation. Can you tell me about that, and how meditation and psychedelics can work together?

Our primary interest was to research the neurobiology of the self and its alteration through psychedelics. Since long-term meditators are trained experts in self-regulation and in navigating  consciousness, we were interested in how they will deal with psychedelic experiences. As study participants, they spent 5 days in a silent meditation retreat, and we compared how psilocybin affected their meditation experience compared to a placebo group. We were particularly interested how psilocybin affects meditation depth, the occurrence of mystical experiences, and quality of life afterwards. Some participants have been meditating for 20 years, so you’d expect perhaps there is not much room to go deeper. But it was quite surprising to see that the psilocybin group not only reached higher levels of meditation depth and mystical-type experiences, but also truly improved on follow-up measures of mindfulness, self-acceptance, sense of purpose and appreciation for life, and less fear of death.

I feel the ayahuasca retreat I went on in October has helped my meditation practice since then. First of all, meditation practice is so useful during the psychedelic experience. Things like staying in the moment, following your breath, connecting to your body, reminding yourself things will pass, self-acceptance – these are such useful tools during psychedelic experience, that it really gives you a sense of the efficacy of those tools, which motivates you to work harder on meditation in the weeks and months afterwards.

As you mention, it’s a mutual relationship. On the one hand, exploring deeper states of consciousness through psychedelics can motivate a daily mindfulness practice. Psychedelic experiences can refresh the meaning behind your practice and be revealing even after sitting on a meditation cushion for 20 years. When you return to the madness of everyday dual existence and the polarities of life, having had a psychedelic experience can broaden your flexibility and courage in coping with difficult experiences. On the other hand, there are these other mindfulness capabilities that you mention – where psychedelics can support processes such as dis-identification from self-limiting beliefs or developing radical acceptance towards things you cannot change in life.

And meditation helps with the integration, with turning altered states into altered traits.

Yes, and it helps with the preparation too. In our study we found that long-term meditators had much less fear response to the psychedelic experience than non-meditators. Meditation can increase your conscious competence, going from narrow-minded consciousness to a broader perspective, and feeling more accepting of what happens.

There should be a masters degree in conscious competence.

You put yourself through a lot of conscious competence practices for your last book [The Art of Losing Control]!

Well…conscious incompetence maybe. Tell me about the Reconnect project.

The Reconnect Foundation is a non-profit organisation based in Switzerland, with the mission to establish a novel approach to transformational and sustainable healthcare with a focus on mental health and holistic well-being. It’s proposing a new paradigm of transformation-based psychotherapy, which means moving from the biomedical substitution-oriented model, for example giving anti-depressants every day for depression, towards more of a transformation-based approach, inspired by consciousness-altering techniques, to provide a sense of re-connection, to self, others and nature. The foundation also supports research into the therapeutic potential of psychointegrative plant medicines like ayahuasca. 

Will this potentially also be a psychedelic therapy centre?

Yes, we would like to offer evidence-based psychedelic-assisted therapy in the future.

What are the chances of psychedelic therapy being legalized in Switzerland?

It’s the perfect place because Switzerland has a long history with psychedelics, including Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD, and the long-standing psychedelic research at the University of Zurich over the last 20-30 years. The Swiss Society for Psycholytic Therapy received special permissions for psychedelic-assisted therapy in the past. And regulatory authorities are quite pragmatic, as long as we can proof the safety and efficacy of our approach. So I assume we have a good chance.

Where would Reconnect be based? In the Alps?

Currently, most of our researchers and clinicians are based in Zurich, but indeed the Swiss Alps would be a perfect setting to set up a mental health centre.

Finally, what are the questions not being sufficiently explored in psychedelic or ecstatic research? And what are the biggest challenges for the field?

Well, I see big challenges and dangers with respect to exposing the general public to psychedelics. The studies that have been published in the last few years are quite enthusiastic about the usefulness of psychedelics to treat various mental health disorders. It’s always dangerous to hop on trends because you can lose your critical perspective. I’ve often asked myself during my clinical practice, which of my patients would probably benefit from psychedelic therapy? We have no idea or data to estimate the costs and benefits and risks of psychedelic therapy for an individual patient. If we want to arrive there, a lot of research has to be done. I see a danger that clinicians who have no experience with psychedelics themselves, who haven’t gone through psychedelic training or haven’t had the chance to learn in indigenous or other legal contexts, will just administer these drugs in a setting that isn’t safe or effective enough. Psychedelics are like a surgeon’s knife, you need to be well trained to use this powerful tool purposefully, it’s not enough to watch how to do proper surgery on a YouTube channel. Similarly, the level of depth of a psychoanalysis varies with the reflective capacity and self-experience of your therapist. In my opinion, the same standards should apply to the responsible use of psychedelics in medical practice.

As for other frontiers, I have a special interest in non-dual experiences. Psychedelics are exciting molecular tools to systematically research this frontier of consciousness. Non-dual experiences were reported by mystics from various religious backgrounds, but they are also found among users of psychedelics, and they are the most challenging from a philosophical, phenomenological and naturalistic point of view. How can we make sense of a non-dual experience in terms of brain dynamics? If we understand how the brain mediates these two states – the dual and the non-dual mode of information processing – it could greatly advance our understanding of consciousness. There is also some ontological doubt about these experiences – what do they teach us about the nature of consciousness and the fabric of reality? We cross an epistemological boundary here that is very exciting for me, because non-dual experiences pose a challenge on integrating both scientific and spiritual perspectives on life.

One of the things that I feel could be more studied is the nature of the imagination. Psychedelics obviously open up the imaginative faculty in the subconscious – metaphors, symbols, stories, myths, our connection to art and music. When we’re asking about the value or validity of our experiences, that’s also a question of the value and validity of the imagination. The 17th-century materialist view of the imagination, in Thomas Hobbes for example, is that is just creates sandcastles in the sky, empty chimeras. But then you have the idea in medieval Christianity or Romanticism that the imagination can be a visionary, prophetic faculty. I don’t see that discussed much in psychedelic research.

Absolutely, that’s a new frontier. Imagination plays an important role in psychotherapy, you can work on your self-image through various imagination exercises. We can use our imagination to build up compassion to ourselves and others, and to review our self-limiting narratives and to transform them, to liberate ourselves from dysfunctional patterns. We know that psychedelics increase our imaginative capabilities, so that could be a great paradigm.

Indeed.  In Stephan Beyer’s book Singing with Plants, he talks about medicine and theatre, and of helping a person to a story about their illness and their recovery. He calls it ’emplotment’ – ‘the activity of making sense of the story’. He writes: ‘to heal is to rebuild the shattered lifeworld of the sick person’. Psychedelic medicine really does that, it helps people to new narratives: ‘I was broken, then I went to the jungle to take ayahuasca, now I’m better’. Or the opposite: ‘I was well, then I did LSD, now I’m fucked’.

So, as a final frontier, your work looks at nature, music and psychedelics. It’s interesting to think about how music connects us to nature. We don’t think about that much in the West. But Amazon shamans say the plants teach them their songs, and their songs call in the plant spirits. I think about Renaissance songs, in Shakespeare, or in the Beatles, or Romantic poems, and how many of them are songs that connect us to birds, or flowers, or mountains. So in that sense music and poetry deepen our connection to the spirits of nature.

Yes, the connection of life and nature through rhythm and music is very exciting. Since the 1970s, the Damanhur community in Italy has researched plant intelligence and communication. They created an instrument able to perceive the electromagnetic variations from the surface of plant leaves to the root system and translated them into sound. It’s incredible, it sounds like composed music, as if there is an innate ability or intelligence in nature to communicate intentionally. Our brain does not seem to be the only interface, where mind and nature meet.

Integrating ayahuasca into western healthcare

Milan Scheidegger is one of the most interesting young researchers in psychedelics, because he integrates several different perspectives. He’s a clinical psychiatrist at the University of Zurich, who’s spent a decade studying the effect of psychedelics on subjects in a laboratory, and on a meditation retreat. He’s also done field-work on the use of psychedelics in indigenous rituals, and is preparing the first study of the effects of ayahuasca in Switzerland. He’s written a philosophy masters on deep ecology. And he’s a musician, who’s worked with the Sound Trance Institute on using music to induce trance states. He brings all these perspectives together: music, nature, psychedelics and healing, in the Re-Connect Foundation, which he hopes will be a leading Western psychedelic therapy clinic. In the first part of our interview, we compared western psychedelic lab research to American indigenous use of psychedelics, and discuss what can be translated from indigenous experience into a western context. You can read part two here, where we discuss how to translate the elements of indigenous ritual – the shaman, the group, the music, the natural setting – into the context of a western therapy clinic.

How did you get into researching altered states of consciousness?

I have long had an interest in understanding the nature of the human mind and altered states of consciousness. My first altered state I experienced through music – ecstatic improvisation on the piano – as if a resonance field emerges between the musicians and the instruments. It’s also an experience of going beyond the self – creating a field, losing yourself in the field, and you don’t know if you play the instrument or the instrument plays you. It’s an ecstatic state of self-transcendence.

After that, in scientific research, my vision was to understand the mind from the molecule up to the psyche and all the levels of integration, from physics to molecular biology to anatomy and physiology up to psychology and philosophy. My interest in understanding the architecture of the human mind was particularly inspired by psychedelic states of consciousness. For my PhD I researched the antidepressant effect of ketamine in depressed patients, and the role of ketamine-induced experiences to facilitate therapeutic transformation. As a pilot test subject in my own neuro-imaging study in 2009, I had a self-experience with ketamine – and for the first time, I was immersed in an out-of-body experience, and discovered an entirely new perspective of how informative it can be to examine altered states of consciousness from the inside. For a deeper understanding of consciousness it is important to integrate this first-person phenomenal experience with the third-person accounts from neuroscience.

Tell me about the ketamine experience and its therapeutic potential.

Ketamine was promoted in the last fifteen years as a rapid-acting anti-depressant. Studies show that a considerably high proportion of patients with treatment-resistant depression responded to ketamine after only a single administration. But the antidepressant effects are not really long-lasting and return to baseline within 1-3 weeks. There’s a lot of research going on about how to prolong the effects.

And it provokes transcendent experiences?

Compared to classical psychedelics, ketamine is less likely to induce a profound psychospiritual experience. It’s more like an out-of-body experience, but it has a somehow detached and nihilistic quality to it. Ketamine is more likely to deconstruct reality.

So not so much sense of sacredness or connection to the divine?

It is more related to what Buddhist meditators call “emptiness practice”. You have to let go of all meaning and all concepts, and this can be very liberating. When the ego has to just let go of everything, this transition into the void can sometimes be experienced as disconnection, aloneness, fear, and lack of meaning. After this experience of ego-disintegration you start to re-identify with yourself as a person, and with the world, which can provide novel insights into the fabric of reality. In contrast, with psychedelics like psilocybin or ayahuasca, the sense of truth and meaning is generally over-emphasized – you can find yourself in a place of hyper-meaning and deep insightfulness.

In Christian mystical terms, you could say ketamine is apophatic – it’s a state of unknowing – while other psychedelics are more kataphatic – full of meaning and presence.

Yes, I hadn’t come across that distinction, but it resonates with my clinical observations.

Does ketamine therapy also work through a dissolution of the ego’s normal patterns, creating the ability to let go of ingrained ego-beliefs?

Yes, ketamine therapy can relieve human suffering which, in the Buddhist notion, originates from too much attachment to ego-centric drives and cravings. When the ego is dissolved during the altered state of consciousness, this ego-centered suffering goes away. What I teach my patients on ketamine is exactly this process of letting go, not identifying with narrow self-limiting beliefs, emotions, and thought constructs. When patients learn to relax their everyday consciousness in a similar way, they suffer less from anxiety, depression and addictive cravings. A lot of clinicians administer ketamine just as a biomedical drug: Mostly it is injected in a sterile hospital setting, there is not much talk about the experience, and no integration afterwards. But I believe that there is more than just a pharmacological effect, I see a great potential to use ketamine as a psychotherapeutic tool. That is why I want to work out therapeutic protocols for the clinical use of psychedelic substances.

Is ketamine very responsive to set and setting?

I’d say it’s less sensitive than other psychedelics because – due to its numbing effect – patients disengage more from the setting.

You started working with psilocybin at Franz Vollenweider’s laboratory in Zurich. When was that?

Three years ago. I started working on ketamine in 2009, then moved to psilocybin research, and right now, I’m about to start a research project on ayahuasca and DMT at the University of Zurich. Inspired from my ethnobotanical expeditions to South America – Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, where I studied the indigenous use of psychedelic medicines, it is my goal now to further explore their therapeutic potential. However, it remains a great challenge to translate the traditional use of these indigenous medicines into the western medical model.

What kind of rituals have you taken part in?

My first encounter with psychedelic medicines was in the Wirikuta desert in the north of Mexico, where the Huichol cultures use peyote, a mescaline-containing cactus, in their ceremonies. My experience with peyote was deeply revealing of why the Huicholes call Wirikuta the ‘womb of mother earth’. I found myself in an insanely-vast desert plane with just hills on either side, with just the sky above. It’s pure stillness full of wonder and awe. During that night I really felt like becoming part of the universe, or the universe became part of me. I could experience myself as a cosmic fractal transcending time and space. But what does it really mean to be a tiny little fractal of this cosmic dance?

I had other expeditions to Colombia and Brazil, where I have participated in many ayahuasca ceremonies with different indigenous tribes. That was really far out of the comfort zone. Indigenous people usually live in poor conditions, with comparably low hygienic standards and only basic food. I remember the first night we arrived, it was a broken house, we hung our hammocks outside, it was raining. We had our first ayahuasca ceremony in a space that looked more like a garage than a ceremony hall – with petrol canisters and broken motorcycles. There was no trace of any Western neo-shamanic romanticism that often comes with a new age type of spiritual ambience, but just the brutal reality of being exposed to the archaic forces of simple life in poverty and wilderness. It was more of an exorcism ritual, where the shaman tried to clear us from bad spirits, really believing that the bad spirits are there and need to be expelled. That was quite intimidating!

The indigenous setting works more on the dualistic spectrum – an archaic fight between evil forces and the shaman, who has special powers to protect and to heal you. It has nothing to do with mysticism, it clearly belongs to the realm of magic. Magic is very much directed towards action – ‘I need to do something to get rid of an unpleasant state’ – while mysticism is not at all directed to action, because the subject of action is completely dissolved in the mystical state. There is no polarity, no fight, no tendency to act in any way, no need to protect yourself from anything. In the dualist shamanic world-view, there is struggle and fight that can be only brought under human control through magic. It was interesting to experience how ayahuasca works in different contexts.

I felt the same. I was really surprised by the gap between the western idea of ayahuasca as a benevolent life-coach goddess who heals you through self-acceptance and forgiveness, and the indigenous sorcery model of illness as described by anthropologists like Stephan Beyer, where ayahuasca helps you discover who spiritually attacked you and then get maybe revenge on them.  Anyway, speaking personally, one of the things I found helpful about ayahuasca was it got me out of my head – out of my obsessive rational analysing – and into my heart.

Yes. I’m also a very intellectual person, and after taking ayahuasca, my immediate realization was ‘why did I spend the last ten years reading so many philosophical books, while through ayahuasca you get so intimately close to the mystery of life, which I could never reach through intellectual enquiry?’ Drinking ayahuasca is like searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. But that might be dangerous, if you fall into the illusory trap of ‘oh wow, now I’ve understood everything’. Then you are probably just kept in another illusion!

What’s your experience on ayahuasca? Do you get a sense of being guided by something? Do you have encounters? Do you have a sense of being taught?

With ayahuasca, I had this experience of facing another presence or intelligence. It’s as if you’re entering a dark temple hall, and you can’t see anything, but you feel there is somebody present. There is a feeling of otherness, as if another intelligence intentionally takes control over your conscious space, which can be overpowering sometimes, even evoking a feeling of spiritual devotion. Because ayahuasca and its active ingredient DMT are likely to induce spiritual experiences, they are also used as religious sacraments in some Brazilian churches. Compared with other psychedelic molecules, the epistemological sense of “truth” might be specifically altered by DMT – everything that you experience seems unquestionably true. Actually that is the essence of non-dualism – when the subject and object of perception become one, there is logically no possibility for doubt anymore. But that’s maybe also the source of the DMT illusion – by hijacking your epistemological capabilities, any critical distance towards truth is suspended for a while. So the epistemological question remains – is DMT just another way of brainwashing, or is it revealing real truths?

That’s exactly what I’m asking myself. In the West there is this idea that psychedelics take us beyond culture to ‘the core mystical experience’, to some ultimate reality. And yet that idea is itself culture-bound, it grew up in the US, through Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Rick Doblin, and that idea has its own cultural agenda tied to it. I grew up in that culture, so guess what kind of psychedelic experience I have?

I notice that I have these deep experiences through psychedelics or other forms of ecstatic practice, where I arrive at a truth, but usually it’s a truth I already believed, I just feel deeply confirmed in it. So on ayahuasca I got a sense of cosmic hope, that the people I know who are suffering will ultimately be OK, that we’ll all be OK through multiple births and a steady journey upwards. But I believed that before – it gave me the powerful sense that my pre-existing beliefs were true. Aztecs take psychedelics and meet the Aztec gods, Shipibo Indians meet the various spirits of Shipibo culture, westerners meet a benevolent life-coach, and so on.

I was reading a lot about ayahuasca before my first-hand experience in the Amazon. And I was wondering why so many people have visions of snakes under the influence of ayahuasca. As a critical scientist, I swore to myself that ‘I will never fall into this hipster trap of hallucinating snakes’. Although I set this clear intention, the first animal that appeared during my ayahuasca journey of course was a snake. And then even worse things happened: I myself started changing into a snake. I reflected on this phenomenon from a neurobiological perspective: why do so many people see snakes? I believe it’s not just that we have these previous expectations about snakes – if we look into the phenomenology of elementary hallucinations, ayahuasca often evokes geometrical patterns with a diamond shape. And if you look how people move under the effects of ayahuasca, there is this sinuous movement. If you combine these two hallucinatory elements, sinuous movements with diamond shapes, what’s the next semantically meaningful object category you arrive at the level of complex hallucinations? Perhaps that is why the brain has a natural tendency to hallucinate snakes under the effects of ayahuasca.

An ayahuasca-inspired painting by Peruvian shaman-artist Pablo Amaringo

You have experience both of western psychedelic labs and indigenous psychedelic rituals. As you know, psychedelic scientists might talk about ‘mystical experiences’ or ‘Mind-at-Large’ but never talk about negative spirits. They don’t consider it part of their job to protect people from bad spiritus, but of course, with shamans that’s one of their prime responsibilities. What do you think?

In our studies with psilocybin and ketamine, we had very few instances of participants encountering entities or bad spirits. States of anxiety due to intimidating hallucinations are quite rare in our studies. Maybe it has to do with the setting – the subjects are medically screened and follow a strictly supervised study protocol including questionnaires and brain scanning. It’s not the ideal setting for having a psychospiritual experience – we observed a much higher percentage of mystical-type experiences in our study of experienced meditators taking psilocybin in a meditation retreat setting.

Probably also the mindset makes a difference – we don’t live in a world where we believe in these entities and have to protect ourselves from them. In the shamanic paradigm, if you lose your ego-boundaries, everything can spill over from the spirit world, so you need some kind of protection. In the Amazon, indigenous people don’t talk much about their ayahuasca experiences – after a ceremony, they just go home. It’s not common to have an integration circle and share experiences among participants. I don’t know whether entity encounters are more common in indigenous populations. Usually, mostly shamans talk about spirits, because talking about them has an important function – shamans want to emphasize their power and influence and solidify their social role in the tribe. I assume that there is a lot of powerful rhetoric in their way of talking, which builds social hierarchy and control. That’s how I believe the whole shamanic traditions evolved, it’s comparable to the churches in the West. If you want to become a shaman you have to train with a shaman for 20 years, and take on board their belief system. Do they all really experience what they are talking about? I’m not sure if every priest really has experienced everything that he is preaching. Maybe I’m too skeptical and disrespectful, but I question the contents of the shamanic discourse for this reason, because it may be biased by the strong social function behind it. What’s your perspective?

When I first read about shamanic understandings of ayahuasca, I found it funny how different it was to western understandings of it – that indigenous people had a sorcery model of illness and health,  where if you’re unwell it’s often because someone has secretly cursed you, and you can use ayahuasca to identify the ‘magic dart’, remove it, and maybe send it back to the person who cursed you. My second reaction was judgmental – I thought this sounds an unhealthy way of understanding illness. I read Stephan Beyer’s book, Singing to the Plants, and he talked about the culture of envidia in small Amazon communities – suspicion, paranoia, who wishes me ill. That model of illness and healing can lead to cycles of retribution killing – I think you secretly attacked me, so I attack you. I don’t want to go back to the evil eye model of sickness and illness, I think that’s an unhealthy model.

But a third perspective on it was put to me by Joe Tafur. He said, yes there is a dark side to shamanic culture. But at least they admit that, compared to western New Age psychedelics, or psychedelic research, or western psychiatry for that matter, where the dark side exists but is often not admitted. I have to say, I have a lot of respect for indigenous medicine rituals – the recognition of the power of music, art, performance, group work. And their sense of psychedelics as a connection to nature, as a means to botanical knowledge.

What’s tricky is that I don’t know the nature of the spirit world. When I did ayahuasca, I had a sense of being in a universe filled with entities and intelligences. I don’t know if there are bad entities we need protection from. We don’t know. Westerners are quite new to psychedelics. Back in the Middle Ages, there definitely was this sense that there are good or bad spirits, so you need to practice the discernment of spirits. I don’t know what conclusions our culture will come to on that matter.

That’s where deep ecology comes into play. According to deep ecology, we can always draw artificial lines and distinctions, but in the end – from the perspective of universal metabolism – it doesn’t matter so much if something significant occurs inside or outside the body. When we get rid of artificial boundaries and just acknowledge the basic ecological forces in the universe, then  the human mind appears just as one tiny little fractal in the cosmic interplay of these powerful archaic forces. The main argument from deep ecology is to understand the relationships and the functional role and meaning they have, instead of being narrowly focused solely on the materialistic understanding of solid things.

There’s still the sense of how one should relate to what one meets. You spoke of meeting a separate intelligence which wants reverence and devotion. In the intensity of a psychedelic experience it matters how one relates. One can relate in many different ways – one can surrender, one can engage erotically, one can reject it, one can try to dominate it. These different attitudes might have different consequences.

That relates to a very interesting deep ecological question: what is the evolutionary role or meaning behind the fact that when humans ingest a psychedelic plant that tickles certain brain receptors they have experiential access to profoundly meaningful altered states of consciousness? What is the evolutionary information-theoretical role of a plant molecule that interacts with specific brain receptors to give rise to a collective belief system? Naturalistically speaking, it’s mind-blowing. How do we explain this?

The point you’re making is the plant is ingested and it grows into a culture. It’s not just an individual experience, it’s a culture. You could think of a culture as like a moss or a forest. So what do you think can be brought from indigenous psychedelic healing into western psychedelic healing?

It’s a challenging question because bringing ayahuasca into a western scientific context evokes a lot of resistance among traditionalists who argue that this will never work, as long as we don’t adopt the indigenous belief systems or at least have a shaman guiding the process, ayahuasca alone will have absolutely no or even undesired effects. I have a different and more pragmatic opinion on this, because as a physician I have a clear ethical mission to reduce human suffering, and I believe that ayahuasca has some therapeutic potential to reduce human suffering. The West probably has to invent its own ayahuasca context – we can’t just transplant the whole shamanic belief system from the Amazon into western societies. We have to find a new way how to make sense of ayahuasca in our culture, for our minds, and with our belief systems. To that, we should stay pragmatic and not dogmatic. Probably ayahuasca will work completely differently in the West compared to the traditional use in the Amazon. That’s the idea behind evolution: To take something out of its original context, and put it in an entirely different context with totally different results. I have huge respect for indigenous cultures because they went through a long process of evolutionary adaptation – they experimented with ayahuasca for hundreds of years and found meaningful ways to work with that medicine. Although this body of knowledge and experience is impressive, it might not be the only meaningful way of working with ayahuasca.

So the main thing one can take is the substance rather than the culture? 
There may be ritual elements which may be universal – if a brain enters a trance state it may make sense to play some rhythmic music, or provide some sort of container or safe setting for the loss of control. These are the elements we need to adapt. I have no definite solution for this, I’m still collecting ideas at an initial brain-storming stage. 
Have you started experimenting yet? 
We’re preparing a standardised botanical extract as an analogue to ayahuasca for our studies in Zurich. We’re also preparing a psychotherapeutic framework in which ayahuasca could be used. From what I have experienced on my ethnobotanical expeditions to South America, I believe that ayahuasca has the potential to become a valuable psychotherapeutic tool. Several patients that I’m treating within the standard biomedical paradigm could benefit from an experimental psychotherapy session with ayahuasca. 

 

Unlocking the positives in spiritual psychosis

Psychosis. Scary word isn’t it? These days we think nothing less of a person if they publicly disclose they get depression, or anxiety. We applaud them for being brave, but they’re not really risking anything. But admit you get psychotic episodes…that you hear voices…that you see things others don’t see? Maybe some of us start to edge away.

Psychosis is the ultimate bogey-man for our rationalist-materialist culture. It is the sleep of reason, a land of monsters, with absolutely nothing positive about it. It’s a biological flaw, which you need to suppress with medication and try to go on with your life.

But other cultures in India, Africa, Asia or Latin America have other ways of framing such experiences, which suggest they’re not negative or positive, just something that happens to some humans along their path of development, which can be integrated positively into their lives and societies. This may be why outcomes for people with schizophrenia are worse in western cultures than in other cultures (or it may be because in developing countries anti-psychotic drugs are used more selectively, leading to better outcomes for people).

In western culture, some psychologists – RD Laing, Stanislaf Grof, and more recently the Hearing Voices Network – have demanded a re-evaluation of such experiences, so that we take the content and meaning of people’s thoughts, visions or voices seriously, and help people come to terms with them. Grof,in particular, introduced the idea that some psychotic episodes are not symptoms of brain disorders but spiritual emergencies – messy and frightening moments of radical shift in ego structure, which can be moments of spiritual awakening and growth if handled sympathetically.

Last week, I got to interview Anthony Fidler, a British teacher of Zen meditation and tai chi, about his experience of using mindfulness and connection practices to navigate through occasional episodes of psychosis / highly altered states of consciousness. You can listen to our interview on our podcast, on the Soundcloud link below or on iTunes.

I met Anthony in India in 2017, at a Zen retreat he was helping to run. I was struck by how cool and collected he seemed to be – I thought he might be a military man. I thought to myself ‘that’s how I’d like to be after years of practice’. After the retreat, we got talking, and I discovered his life story was very different from what I imagined. He was a soldier, but of a different kind. In fact, Anthony has over the last 18 years experienced occasional episodes of what western psychiatry would call psychosis – visions, voices, highly altered sense of self, time and external reality. He was initially referred to a psychiatrist for this and put on risperidone, an anti-psychotic drug, but – as he tells me in the interview – the psychiatrist showed no interest in him as a person, and the drugs made him feel far worse. Eventually, he learned to manage his intrusive dark thoughts with mindfulness, and to learn to exist in very altered states, while staying present, calm and compassionate.

He offers us a different way to cope with psychosis (if we want to use that rather loaded word, which immediately seems to bracket off this realm of experience as something deeply abnormal and terrifying). To have a psychotic episode in western culture is to be deemed a f*ck-up, possibly someone with a genetic biological condition requiring lifelong medication. But what if these states of consciousness are natural? What if these experiences can be stages of healing and growth, albeit rather messy? What if our cultural attitude to them is precisely what makes them so harmful and life-ruining?

My best friend had a psychotic episode when he was 16, and has been on medication ever since. 25 years later, he can barely conduct a conversation. NHS psychiatrists wanted to help him, but they may have actively ruined his life by insisting he take medication which is obviously not working. Other loved ones have experienced psychosis and been too afraid to seek treatment, because of our society’s phobic attitude to this realm. I myself had a two-week episode of what psychiatrists would call psychosis, following a nine-day ayahuasca retreat in October. For two weeks, I felt like I was in a different reality, and wasn’t sure if I was in a dream. But I managed to come out of that experience, and even feel like I’d grown and healed through it, thanks to the love and support of my friends, and thanks to some basic spiritual tools I’d learned over the past few years, particularly self-acceptance and focus.

We have made an enemy of aspects of our own mind. It’s our mind, our home, we need to learn to live in it peacefully, and to make friends with the wilder beasts that roam there. There are dragons within us, but with care and education we can learn to ride the dragons.

NB: Anthony does not argue that all people on anti-psychotic medication should immediately come off it. It is dangerous to come off anti-psychotic medication too quickly, and should only be done in consultation with one’s doctor.

To find out more about Anthony’s work go here.

Here’s the Soundcloud link:

Geoff Mulgan on the politics of well-being and loneliness

Geoff Mulgan is the CEO of the charity NESTA, and former policy director of Number 10 Downing Street, co-founder of Demos, former CEO of the Young Foundation, and a pioneering figure in the ‘politics of well-being’ over the last 20 years.

We discuss what governments and organisations can do to promote well-being and mitigate loneliness. What can universities do to promote wellbeing in their local communties, particularly through evening education, and why are academics so suspicious of the politics of wellbeing? And why is he so embarrassed to discuss his training as a Buddhist monk?

Further links:

Here’s an upcoming anthology of academic essays on the politics of well-being.

Here’s Mulgan’s TEDX talks on measuring happiness.

Here’s Demos’ 1998 essay collection, The Good Life.

And here’s some of the Young Foundation’s work on belonging.

Insecurity Cameras: Nye Thompson, Surveillance Art and the Making of Modern Anxiety

Rhodri Hayward is Reader in the History of Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and a founder member of the Centre for the History of the Emotions. His current research into tidying up, time management, and emotional health is part of the Wellcome-funded Living With Feeling project. In this post for the History of Emotions blog, Rhodri writes about the work of one of his artistic collaborators on that project.


Over the last two years, the artist Nye Thompson, in concert with an array of internet bots, has begun to assemble an archive of our anxieties.  Working through unsecured networks, the bots harvest images from surveillance cameras and webcams, cataloging the domestic interiors and empty office spaces that have become the objects of our anxiety. The effect is curiously unsettling.

Unlike the fears of continuous surveillance that animated civil liberties campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s – and which generated a host of academic papers addressing the power of ‘panopticism’ – these images reveal something bleaker and more disturbing.  They demonstrate the persistence of our watchful gaze over spaces vacated or abandoned.  ‘Eerie’ is perhaps the right word.  As the critic, Mark Fisher, wrote “The eerie is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. There is something where there should be nothing, or there is nothing where there should be something.”  Our worries over empty homes and property, which we seek to allay through surveillance,  generate, in turn, their own unsettling impressions.

There have of course been many attempts to create catalogues of emotion or archives of feeling.  Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) mixed photographs, home experiments and literary reports from far flung correspondents to create a survey of the forms of feeling grounded in evolutionary history.  Similarly, Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen, working through the 1960s and 1970s, curated portraits of emotional expressions from New Guinea, Borneo, Brazil, the US, Chile, Argentina and Japan. The collection was used to ground the claim that there are six basic emotions that can be recognised across all human cultures.  Ekman and Friesen’s argument was inspired, in part, by Darwin’s evolutionary theories and, in part, by the ideas of the neuropsychologist, Silvan Tomkins: Tomkins claimed that emotions should be seen as affect programmes – codes for facial, bodily and mental performances –  scripted in prehistory and hard-wired into our brains.

Although Nye Thompson’s archive of surveillance images seems quite distant from the work of Darwin and Ekman, it intersects with them in curious ways.  As Thompson’s most recent work with her software bot (‘The Seeker’) demonstrates, there is a symmetry between the ways that Ekman and Tomkins imagine our interior lives and the inner operations of the technologies we have invented to watch over them.  Although many security cameras simply operate through continuous open-ended recording, intelligent systems have a series of algorithms built into them in order to identify and capture instances of threat.

Thus a captured image, like the one shown below, of an Old English Shepherd dog heading down a garden path, triggers a series of ‘guesses’ in the machine:  ‘Airfield, Airship, Airport, Warplane, Battleship’.  The home security camera, like Tomkins and Ekman’s imagined human, reads the landscape through a specific script.  The camera’s script however, was written not in the prehistoric past but in the Cold War programmes of drone surveillance — and it carries within its circuitry the neurotic concerns of the military/industrial complex.

Perhaps then, the eeriness of Thompson’s images stems from the fact that they reveal the persistence of a kind of emotional life in a world emptied of people. This would be a challenge for any historian of emotions. Or perhaps, the eeriness arises from the way that this work shows just how closely our most intimate emotions are bound together with the fabric of material life.

The camera, like the charms once used in protective magic, works to reassure us when we worry about vulnerable homes or possessions.  And much like talismans such as the ‘evil eye’ drawn to protect buildings, the camera works by instilling anxiety in the minds of potential wrongdoers. It thus helps to set and sustain feelings that pass between people and objects, the present and the past. It is this intimacy between the material and the psychological, between things and feelings, that accounts for the eeriness of Thompson’s archive of emotion. The images remind us that whatever we might do to safeguard our possessions, our feelings aren’t entirely our own.