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.

Is ayahuasca tourism ‘cultural appropriation’?

This essay is a personal opinion and may contain misunderstandings of my own. I’d be interested to hear from others with more knowledge and experience of ayahuasca, including indigenous healers or those who work closely with them. 

In the last 50 years, Western culture has imported many ecstatic practices. We lost our homegrown spirit as a consequence of a long process of disenchantment that began around the Reformation and continued through the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. There were of course ecstatic revivals, like Romanticism, but they were counter-currents to the main tide. 

Then, in the 1960s, there was a mass explosion of ecstatic practices. Part of that was fuelled by the rapid popularisation of non-western practices, such as yoga, Zen, TM, Tai Chi, Hari Krishna, Native American medicine like peyote and magic mushrooms, and also the popularisation of African-American culture like jazz, rock & roll and Pentecostalism.

But this ‘spiritual tourism’ raises some questions. What’s the right way to engage with another culture’s spiritual treasures? Do Westerners have the right to pick and mix, or to appropriate a culture (creating mindfulness, for example)? Can this sort of spiritual tourism actually be a form of cultural appropriation?

‘Cultural appropriation’ has become one of the rallying cries of left-wing identity politics in the US.  It’s been defined as follows:

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.

Campus activists have, in the last few years, criticized things like white students dressing up as stereotypical Mexicans for parties, or the use of ethnic stereotypes for sports mascots, such as the Washington Redskins or the San Diego State Incas.

And the charge of cultural appropriation has also been levelled against whities adopting non-Western spiritual practices like yoga. In 2015, for example, the University of Ottawa cancelled a yoga class when students protested against it as an instance of cultural theft. This month, a professor at Michigan State University delighted the right-wing press by describing Westerners doing yoga as an instance of white supremacy and systemic racism.

The question of cultural sensitivity (or lack of) was levelled at my last book in an excellent review by Oxford PhD Maya Krishnan. She took issue with my exploration of tantra, saying I had failed to explore its intellectual history and merely presented the ‘neo-tantra’ of Osho, which is a valid criticism. She writes:

The importation and adaptation of experiences of ego loss does not have to be a problem if it is done in the right way. But is troubling to treat other cultures as experiential storehouses which can be raided for ‘good feels’, yet whose conceptual frameworks and intellectual contributions are not worthy of consideration. Engaging with non-Western traditions requires dismantling the hierarchy which allows non-Westerners to be adept at having feelings but which reserves the authority of interpretation for Western scientists and intellectuals.

Which brings me to ayahuasca tourism. Is this, also, an example of cultural appropriation? I read two books this week, both by anthropologists of ayahuasca, which presented starkly different views.

The first is a 2008 book called A Hallucinogenic Tea Laced With Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States, by medical anthropologists Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Roger Rumrill. De Rios has been researching ayahuasca use in the Amazon since the 1960s, and she is appalled by the rise of ‘drug tourism’, ie plane-loads of Western seekers descending on Peru to swig ayahuasca in an attempt to get high and fill their spiritual emptiness.

The authors are against ayahuasca tourism for two reasons. Firstly, they condemn the rise of ‘charlatan’ neo-shamans, both Amazonian and gringo, who cater to the influx of drug tourists. They charge extortionate amounts to run ceremonies, they often haven’t the proper shamanic training and don’t know what they’re doing, they mix brews with all kinds of potentially dangerous plants in the mix (such as datura or deadly nightshade), and they sometimes seduce or assault their female western clients. They are a commodified corruption of the authentic, pure, traditional village shaman that de Rios encountered in the 1960s, whose practices existed unchanged for several thousand years before the gringo tourists turned up and ruined everything.

Secondly, the authors blame the other side of the market – the Western tourists. They exhibit a deep contempt for these tourists, in passages which are so intemperate, bilious and frankly weird as to be unacademic:

A number of upscale, well to do, prominent Americans and Europeans are touring Amazonian cities. Interested neither in parrots nor piranhas [?] , they revel in special all-night religious ceremonies presided over by a powerful shaman…Unlike the jungle denizens who for the last several thousand years have drunk the potion to see the vine’s mother spirit in order to protect themselves from enemies, to divine the future, or to heal their emotional and physical disorders, the urban tourist is a on a never-ending search for self-actualization and growth…Who are these spiritual seekers? They’re ‘narcissistic, selfish, permissive men and women who put their own selves first and foremost…There is the issue of out-and-out theft of the long-standing spiritual teachings and practices of others. Men and women select what they want and ignore anything that does not fit their model…They either have no respect, and treat ayahuasca as a party drug, or they exoticize the shaman into some sort of ‘happy savage’.

The phenomenon, write the authors, ‘has become so flagrant since the mid-1980s that the culture of native peoples is in danger of extinction’. And the worst of it is, it’s partly the fault of anthropologists like de Rios. They came back to the West with tales of marvellous psychedelic ceremonies, and did their best not to sensationalize their accounts, but this opened the floodgate to the goddam tourists: ‘such ‘mass’ or pseudo-intellectual people demand access to the drugs as if it were their natural right to do so.’ They’re not just risking their sanity, their arrival also ‘effectively destroys’ the purity of indigenous culture ‘that has roots in the prehistoric past’.

The authors raise two concerns. Firstly, vulnerable Western tourists are being exploited by fake shamans. Secondly, rapacious Western tourists are ruining indigenous culture with their ravenous, disruptive and ignorant spiritual consumerism. You could say, well, both sides are exploiting the other in a free exchange, is that such a problem? Yes, says de Rios, because it’s destroying the authentic indigenous shamanism which she – the expert anthropologist – uniquely appreciates.

The second book I read is called Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond, and is a collection of essays by anthropologists, published in 2014. I think it’s a much better book than the first, because it maintains a critical distance all too often lacking from academic explorations of ayahuasca. Academics have tended to get lost in their own trip: ayahuasca is an encounter with the secret of DNA (Jeremy Narby), or with ‘Grandmother Ayahuasca’ (Rachel Harris). Such personal accounts make for compelling reading, but they lack critical distance. 

The book begins by suggesting the contemporary phenomenon of ayahuasca use by Amazonians and Westerners has been ‘poorly served’ by anthropologists in the past, because they’ve constructed naive and ideologically-loaded theories of a pure and authentic traditional culture which existed unchanged for millennia until it was suddenly destroyed by Western tourists.  Instead, the editors write:

Local shamanism, cosmopolitan biomedicine and psychology, alternative therapies, New Age spirituality, and the tourism service industry have blended in intricate and fascinating ways that challenge traditional ethnographic notions of authenticity, ethnicity, tradition and place.

Firstly, is ayahuasca use among Amazon Indians definitely pre-historic? Recent work by Peter Gow, Bernd Brabec de Mori and other anthropologists challenges this view, pointing out that there’s no evidence for ayahuasca use among Amazon tribes before the 19th century. There’s evidence for the ingestion of DMT going back to prehistoric times, but not for the use of the ayahuasca brew, which mixes the ayahuasca vine with the chacruna plant. We don’t know how or when this mixture was discovered, but these authors suggest knowledge of the mixture spread among Amazon tribes in the mid-19th century as a consequence of the disruption of the rubber boom and the rise of Jesuit missionary camps, or reducciones, established by Jesuit missionaries from the 17th century onwards.

Stephan Beyer writes:

Indigenous people sought the protection of these camps from epidemic disease, depopulation, slave raiders, and the military threats of their neighbours. Here they were forced to live in common compounds regardless of their tribal distinctions. The intention was that in this way the indios infieles could be more easily controlled and converted to indios cristianos; but the unintended consequence was to form a pressure cooker of cultural interchange.

Irineu Serra with the Costa brothers

Some tribes have only started using ayahuasca in the last few decades, and have embraced it with enthusiasm. A handful of white settlers seem to have drunk ayahuasca since at least the 1920s – the founder of the Santo Daime ayahuasca church, an Afro-Brazilian called Raimundo Irineu Serra, was introduced to ayahuasca by two Spanish-Brazilian brothers, Antonio and Andre Costa. I read on the Santo Daime website that: ‘At this time the sacrament was used to guide the Indians in hunting and fishing, and also to entertain the white man in the moonlight.’  Ah the white man, always seeking entertainment.

In other words, the history of ayahuasca may be quite recent, and from the start seems to be deeply intertwined with the history of globalization, empire, disruption, trade, research and tourism. There may not be an indigenous ayahuasca culture which existed pure and unchanged for millennia before it was ruined by foreigners. On the contrary, it may have arisen quite recently, out of the shock of change and the encounter with different tribes and western civilization, and then spread through new technologies and new exchanges of knowledge and trade, including the internet. I think ecstatic practices often arise in this way, out of the shock of economic and political change and the violent / creative encounter between tribes and cultures.

Secondly, what is the ‘authentic’ use of ayahuasca, who owns it, who is entitled to use it, and how?  Glenn Shepard notes that some tribes like the Yora have only started using ayahuasca since the 1980s, and asks:

Is there anything special, unique or particular about indigenous people’s relationship to ayahuasca when compared to adepts who use it in urban centres? Do the Matsigenka and Yora have an inherently superior moral right to consume ayahuasca within their spiritual tradition when compared with, say, a Belgian Santo Daime member risking incarceration to consume an illegal substance? Such questions raise troubling doubts about our sometimes facile resort to terms such as ‘tradition’, ‘modernity’ ‘indigeneity’, and ‘authenticity’.

There are genuine issues around the economics of ayahuasca tourism. On the one hand, why shouldn’t local ayahuasqueros make money from their work? Why shouldn’t tourism revenues go into the Uyacali, one of the most deprived regions of Peru? On the other hand, Bernd Brabec de Mori estimates that only a few dozen Shipibos ‘live well on ayahuasca tourism’ out of a population of 50,000. Centres owned by or employing Westerners have advantages of language and culture which enable them to attract more Western tourists than local healers. The inequality caused by tourist revenues leads to envy, social discord, and magical attacks against shamans who cater to gringos. And it can mean that locals are priced out of the market – why would shamans provide their services to locals for free when you can sell them to gringos for hundreds of dollars?

There are also serious issues with the ethics and competence of shamans – boom times always lead to a rise in shysters. But I’m sure there have always been shamans who caused harm and abused their power, as with priests, therapists, gurus, psychiatrists or any technicians of the soul. Western tourists should be aware of this and not romanticize or exoticize the shaman, which is forgivable and well-intentioned but still a subtle form of objectification. Daniela Peluso writes:

whereas Amazonian women tend to view shamans as humans who can potentially be abusive, uninfomred Western women do not…it is the coinciding of shamans who view women as easy prey with women who idealize shamans that exacerbates the trend of seduction within ritual contexts.

Has a ‘pure’ indigenous shamanism been corrupted by foreign influence? Yes, some ‘neo-shamans’ offer rituals which seem to throw everything into the mix – jaguars, condors, Mama Ayahuasca, Pachamama, Jesus, Mary, chakras, spiritualism, energy fields, past lives, UFOs. And you could see that as a corruption caused by the similarly ‘pick n’ mix’ Western tourists. But to me, Latin American folk religion has been that sort of syncretistic mash-up for several centuries.

It’s hard for a Western academic to decide which shamans are legitimate and which are bogus, because it depends on unquantifiable things like their dominion over the spirit world. It’s also arrogant and even imperialist – who is de Rios to decree who are genuine shamans and what is and isn’t the legitimate use of ayahuasca? Who made her the jungle pope?

Are Western tourists so very decadent in their motives? Evgenia Foutou met and interviewed many ayahuasca tourists in Peru, and discovered: ‘A majority of participants in ayahuasca ceremonies are motivated by a desire to be healed and have reported successful healing from both psychological and physical ailments.’ That’s not so different to Amazonian clients. Are they more disrespectful in their approach to rituals? No – if anything, they’re more pious. Shipibo ceremonies for tourists are, according to Brabec de Mori, far more formal than ceremonies for locals, in which the shaman will rarely dress up and people come and go as they please. Shipibo shamans joke among themselves, apparently, about the ridiculously elaborate shows their peers put on for the tourists.

Diverging models of illness and healing

There is, of course, a world of difference between Western and Amazonian theories of psychological illness and cure. As Anne-Marie Losonczy and Silvia Mesturini Cappo explore in their essay on ‘Ritualized Misunderstandings’, Amazonians see illnesses either as natural (and therefore treatable with biomedicine) or as caused by sorcery. Ayahuasca helps the shaman identify the instigators of the sorcery, battle the malevolent spirits they have sent, and sometimes get revenge. The cause and cure for illness are ‘out there’, in present social disputes.

Westerners by contrast see psychological problems as caused by emotions, often rooted in family relationships and childhood traumas, and think healing involves release, acceptance, love, forgiveness and sometimes an encounter with one’s higher self or a benevolent higher power, rather than some local and morally-ambiguous spirit ally. The cause and cure for illness are ‘in here’, often in the past.

In other words, the Amazon shaman and the Western tourist meet in the incredible intensity of the ayahuasca ceremony, and have completely different models of what takes place. There is a ‘fundamental misunderstanding’. But they both come away satisfied. They’re able to do this partly because the ceremony takes place in music and gesture, while verbal interaction is kept to a minimum. Western or local mediators help to translate what’s taking place into terms the Western clients can accept, like ‘facing your shadow’ or ‘discovering the real you’.

Do they really get each other?

I chose to do ayahuasca at the Temple of the Way of Light, a well-known centre near Iquitos set up by a British man, which employs Shipibo shamans, because it combined indigenous practitioners with Western facilitators. I wanted to be able to seek support from Western therapists if necessary. My understanding of what was taking place was guided by them, more than the shamans, who didn’t speak English. I did find the shamans’ singing extraordinary and important to my healing experience, but who is to say how much of that was cultural projection on my part? I simply don’t know, because I don’t know whether ayahuasca connects to a genuine spirit world, and what the nature of that world is. I don’t know the precise distribution of revenues within the Temple, but it does fund an institute to support local indigenous communities and culture, and also to support the sustainable growth of the ayahuasca vine.

To conclude, ayahuasca tourism involves all kinds of risks, myths, misunderstandings and unintended consequences. As tourists we should seek to protect ourselves from the risks, and be careful who we trust. It might also be respectful to research about indigenous ayahuasca culture, which is what I’ve done since coming back from Peru. But the more I do, the more I see the distance between Western understandings of ayahuasca healing, and Amazonian understanding of it. Most Western tourists are ignorant of the sorcery-model of illness and healing, and I think would be quite surprised and put off if they knew more about it. To me, it is not a good model for Westerners, not one I want to adopt or disseminate.

What we see in ayahuasca tourism, instead, is a Westernized, Christianized version of ayahuasca culture. Instead of the Amazonian idea of dominating spirits in order to expose your secret enemies and get revenge, Westerners use ayahuasca to identify the traumas or emotional blocks in their psyche, and to find healing through acceptance, love, perseverance, and surrender to a totally benevolent higher power. It’s close to the therapeutic Deism one finds in most contemporary churches, in which Jesus is basically your life coach, but with a nature Goddess rather than a cosmic God. Perhaps it’s rather boring and bland compared to Amazonian sorcery battles. But I think it’s much healthier for Western psyches.

If ayahuasca use continues to grow among Westerners, we’re likely to see more and more Westernized centres, owned and run by Westerners, probably increasingly based in Europe and the US (in Oregon, a new church which uses ayahuasca is currently defending its right to use the brew in the courts). Where will they source their ayahuasca? Do we have the right to grow our own ayahuasca and use it for our own rituals (as Santo Daime has done)? Will that leave indigenous healers out entirely? Is that a bad thing, or should each culture stick to its own culture?

One thing I’m certain of is that no one is really in charge, no one is in control, and a variety of different forms of ayahuasca culture will emerge, from religious cults to DIY secular libertarianism. Who knows which will flourish and spread. Maybe the medicine knows!

REVIEW. Pain: A Very Short Introduction, by Rob Boddice.

Rob Boddice, Pain: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Reviewed by Javier Moscoso, Research Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid. He is the author of Pain: A Cultural History (2012).


After the publication of pioneering works by Elaine Scarry and David B. Morris, it was only a matter of time before the history of pain – in the whole rich complexity of its cultural meanings – began to flourish as a field.

In the last ten years or so, the number of papers, conferences, and monographs dealing with different forms of physical suffering or psychological distress has expanded rapidly. Far from being limited to the history of medical remedies or physiological theories,  the cultural history of pain has become one of the most polyphonic areas of historiographical inquiry, with contributions that cover such disparate areas as the history of tears and sadness, pain in animals and infants, the emotional communities of medieval sufferers, rituals of sexual and cultural masochism, the experience of cancer patients, and the development of analgesic medicines.

The history of the body, but also the new history of the emotions, has begun to trace the cultural differences and historical varieties within what had often been considered a universal experience. Even from a purely medical point of view, we may wonder at the enormous variety of experiences that fall under the same word. After all, what we call “pain” involves a tremendous variety of different realities, from causalgia to fibromyalgia and from grief and mourning to physical and psychological trauma.

Given the proliferation of perspectives, we can only celebrate the publication of this small book that comes to shed some light and impose some order upon such a vast field of inquiry. Its author, Rob Boddice, a leading historian of emotions, has published extensively on the history of sympathy, animal suffering, pain and emotions. He is also the author of a new handbook on the history of the emotions published by Manchester University Press [which will be reviewed on this blog later in the year – Ed.]

Pain: A Very short introductionPain, A Very Short Introduction, explores the phenomenon of pain (the event of pain, as Joanna Bourke nicely called it in her The Story of Pain. From Prayers to Painkillers) from a triple point of view. First, it gives a critical account of contemporary theories and definitions of pain. Second, it covers what pain has been historically, how it has been conceptualized, experienced, expressed or ignored, not just from a clinical or medical point of view, but also from a more cultural perspective. Finally, Boddice also discusses the way in which all understanding of pain and suffering requires a political standpoint from which to explore and assess the pain of others.

This last point, fully developed by the work of Keith Wailoo in his Pain: A Political History, can of course also be applied to the author of the book under review.  After all, Boddice could have chosen other examples or referred to some other experiences. He could have put more emphasis on non-western sources or explored in more detail some other non-English cultural milieus. This is indeed one interesting feature in Rob Boddice’s book: his attempt to introduce some global variations and reflections on non-Western cultures of pain and suffering.

The book is divided into nine chapters that go from concepts to cultures or from pain mechanisms to masochism. Written with dexterity, concision and clarity, it also includes an updated bibliography. In brief, this is a very impressive short book about a polymorphous and highly elusive subject that combines first hand research, useful summaries of current debates, and explorations for future inquiries.

Javier Moscoso
Instituto de Historia CSIC Spain

The Transpersonal Revolution: meditation, psychedelics, psychosis

One of the main insights of last year, for me, was that meditation and psychedelics are two useful spiritual practices that work well together. Meditation sharpens certain cognitive and emotional tools (concentration, acceptance, compassion) which help one ride the waves of psychedelic consciousness. It also helps you to integrate the insights you get from your psychedelic experiences, in the weeks and months afterwards, so as to turn altered states into altered traits.

At the ayahuasca retreat I went on in October, at a place called the Temple of the Way of Light near Iquitos, in Peru, we were encouraged to develop our meditation practice in the months leading up to the retreat, and if possible to do a Vipassana retreat. I went on a 10-day Vipassana retreat in 2016, and then a week-long Zen retreat in 2017, and they both really helped me to navigate the stormy seas of ayahuasca.

Even when I was buen mareado (which can be loosely translated as ‘properly mullahd’), I found I could still remember and practice certain spiritual attitudes: sit up straight, focus on your breath, practice self-compassion and acceptance.

At one particularly intense moment, I forgot who I was or where I was, and felt myself adrift in another dimension totally beyond my comprehension (this is quite common on ayahuasca). I had a deep sense of dread, a sense that I was way out of my head and would never come back. But even there, I could still remember to practice my tools. I had two cards I could play: firstly, accept what’s arising, and secondly, remind myself that everything passes. And it did. I came back into my body, remembered my name, remembered where I was and why I was there. 

Psychedelics and meditation are two of the most exciting fields in psychology and psychiatry. Mindfulness, as you know, has become a huge field of research and has transformed western mental health in the last decade. Psychedelic therapy has been tipped as the most promising new development in psychiatry by Tom Insell, the former head of the US National Institute of Mental Health.

Both psychedelics and meditation are rapidly spreading in our culture. Around 15% of Westerners practice some form of meditation, like yoga, mindfulness, Vipassana or Transcendental Meditation. The use of psychedelics is also on the rise – LSD use among young people grew by 175% among young people in England and Wales between 2013 and 2015.

We’re in the middle of not just a ‘mindfulness revolution’ or a ‘psychedelic renaissance’, but rather a transpersonal revolution. The ideas of transpersonal psychology, once considered marginal and kooky, are becoming mainstream, and transforming our ideas of the self, society and reality.

Transpersonal psychology can be roughly defined as the study of human development beyond the everyday ego (hence ‘transpersonal’), including a positive understanding of spiritual experiences (also called peak experiences, transcendent experiences, altered states of consciousness, flow states, self-transcendent experiences and so on). The field is more open to the possibilities of what one encounters beyond the self – the collective mind, spirits, God – and more open to the possibility of life after death.

The field began with William James and Frederic Myers in the 1890s, developed with Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley in the 1930s-1950s, and flourished in the 1960s through figures like Abraham Maslow, Stanislaf Grof, Timothy Leary and Ram Dass.

It’s become much more mainstream in academic psychology today partly because neuroscience has given a new credibility to the study of consciousness and to fields like contemplative science and psychedelic science, and partly because baby-boomer hippies and 90s ex-ravers are now in positions of power in academia, and they’re much more open to a transpersonal perspective through their own spiritual practice. In academia, power defines what’s accepted as worthy of funding, and therefore true (or at least possibly true).

The transpersonal revolution is transforming our idea of the self. We’re discovering that the self is malleable, as Epictetus put it – we can rewire our habitual beliefs and behaviour through practices.   We’re discovering the importance of focus, attention and acceptance in dealing with thoughts and emotions moment to moment, and the possibility of training attention through meditation. We’re realizing William James was right – rational analytical consciousness is just one type of consciousness among many, and other types of consciousness also have their role and can be helpful in healing and bonding.

We’re recognizing the stable conscious ego is a construction, and that there is much bigger self – largely subconscious – which one discovers through dreams, contemplation and psychedelics. We’re realizing the importance of belief, faith and ritual in unlocking the placebo or ‘healing response’ in the subconscious. We’re realizing the importance of the body in processing, storing and releasing emotions and trauma – mainstream psychology ignored the body for a long time. Yes, the early psychoanalysts talked about hysterical symptoms in the body, but their cure was always talking, not yoga, healing touch, dancing or psychedelic puking. 

Beyond that, we’re moving towards the idea that beneath our transient ego-beliefs there is a luminous open awareness, which we can move into and stay within. And this awareness can be a space of acceptance, equanimity, and love. People seem to reach this space through contemplation, through psychedelics, through near-death experiences. And this space – call it the heart-mind – seems connected to other beings or energies, in ways we don’t yet understand and that don’t fit into materialist psychology.

We’re also realizing that Jung was right – there’s a big Jung revival happening as a consequence of the transpersonal revolution. Jung (and other early pioneers, like Myers and Flournoy) understood how the subconscious speaks through myths, symbols and fairy-tales, which are sometimes shared. He (and others) also understood that not everything in the subconscious is flowers and bunny rabbits. Our constructed egos have a shadow – all the things we think we must hide or repress, all the things we push away and run from in fear and aversion. That shadow comes up in spiritual practices.

In contemplative science, for example, Brown University’s Varieties of Contemplative Experience project has explored the difficult experiences people often encounter in meditation, particularly the return of repressed thoughts and emotions. Psychedelic therapists also routinely draw on Jung’s idea of the return of the shadow.

In both contemplative science and psychedelic science, researchers are finding that Jung was right – the best way to deal with the shadow is through patience, acceptance and compassionate investigation. Rather than running away in terror, we can say: ‘welcome, come in, sit down, let me get to know you’. We remind ourselves of an acronym like RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Nourish. Then, after a few minutes, years or decades, the unwanted, frightening and daemonic part of us becomes transformed into an ally and helper, just as the Buddha transformed the terrifying snake nagas into his allies and protectors (as in the statue above from Sala Keoku in Thailand). 

But the journey from awakening to integration and realization is no picnic. It’s no walk in the park. Well…it is, but only if we’re talking Central Park at night, filled with zombies and anacondas. The spiritual journey is a journey beyond the ego, a journey through the ego’s death. The shadow is a very good fence holding the ego up – on it is a big sign saying ‘do NOT go beyond here’, and scary monsters jump out at you if you do. Go beyond that fence and your ego screams ‘I’m going to die!’ Which it is, eventually.

The transpersonal revolution is leading to a rise in ‘spiritual crises’

Now here is the key point I want to emphasise. As more and more people meditate and take psychedelics, more and more people are also reporting spiritual or mystical experiences (see the results from Gallup on the right). And some of those experiences will be quasi-psychotic spiritual crises.

We think ‘oh, peak experiences, flow experiences, sure, great, I’ll upgrade myself and become a super-person. Bring it on’. And sometimes they’re lovely. But sometimes they’re deeply disorientating, and mess with our normal ego-functioning. And they should!

This much was noted by Ram Dass (or Richard Alpert as he was known at Harvard), who has been so helpful to me and our culture in navigating these waters. He noted, back in the mid-70s, that while more and more Americans responded in a survey that they’d had a mystical experience, the majority added they never wanted another one! ‘They upset the apple-cart of our ordered reality’, he says, in this excellent talk.

The area of spiritual crises was brilliantly explored in a collection of essays edited by Stanslaf and Christina Grof, called Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, which they published in 1989. The Grofs write in the introduction:

As various Oriental and Western spiritual disciplines are rapidly gaining popularity, more and more people seem to be having transpersonal crises – yet another reason that the correct understanding and treatment of spiritual emergencies is an issue of ever-increasing importance.

Spiritual awakenings can involve temporary psychotic phenomena like mania, ego-inflation, Messiah complexes, seeing patterns and significance in everything, intense energy and sleeplessness, physical anomalies like shaking or twitching, loss of critical thinking and a tendency to embrace one’s intuitions as the absolute truth, a flooding of dream-material from the subconscious, the return of repressed trauma, a merging of dream and reality, paranoia and persecutory complexes, and a general disordering of one’s usual reality and sense of the boundaries of the self.

The personal ego is a fiction, but it’s a fiction we’ve clung to all our lives, perhaps for thousands and thousands of lives. Waking up to the emptiness of the ego, the power of the Higher Self, and the interconnectedness of all things can be wildly euphoric, or utterly terrifying.

Contemplative science, which is about 20 years ahead of psychedelic science, is already grappling with this fact. Having gone through a decade of unremitting positivity and hype around meditation (it heals depression, it heals anxiety, it improves productivity etc etc etc), there is now more research pointing out that sometimes, people on retreats have very scary, difficult experiences, which can last weeks, months or years. Psychedelic research is still in the era of unremitting hype (psychedelics can cure depression, anxiety, addiction, improve productivity etc etc etc), and is still somewhat in denial about the dark side of psychedelics. But it’s there.

What I noticed in other participants and in myself, on the ayahuasca retreat, was a loss of the ability to critique or reflect on what the medicine / subconscious was telling us. People became much more prone to unusual beliefs and magical thinking. Our whole model of reality – based around the everyday ego – was dissolved. This was hugely healing, and opened up a joyful vision of interconnectedness, play and even immortality. But people could also believe some crazy stuff.

One of the shaman said to us at the beginning of the retreat: ‘The medicine is a poet, it speaks in metaphors’. But, like fundamentalists, we would sometimes seize on the metaphors presented to us as the actual literal truth. ‘I saw the future, I am the pilot of an interstellar spaceship’. ‘I realized my father isn’t actually my father’. ‘I need to build a giant pyramid in the jungle to communicate with aliens’ (this last one was a vision by an IT engineer called Julian Haynes – he built the pyramid, then it fell down. Classic Werner Herzog stuff. Still, quite a vision!)

These insights might be spiritual metaphors rather than the literal truth.

People often think they are about to die on ayahuasca. This is mistaking temporary ego dissolution for permanent actual death. Or we might even think the world is about to end – again, the psychic and spiritual death-and-rebirth is misinterpreted as a literal apocalypse.

As Chris Kilham, author of The Ayahuasa Test Pilot Handbook, puts it:

Ayahuasca and other psychedelics can deliver positive, transformative benefits. But they can also set the mind afire with lavish, nonsensical ideas. Most common is the notion of discovering that you, yes YOU! will save the planet. You wont. This is just the same old messy messianic thinking that has never worked and never will. For if there is to be a new, more free and conscious world, we will need not one, but several billon messiahs, each selflessly pulling together for the whole of humanity and planetary welfare.

In the meantime, we have only begun to see the Age Of The Kooks. As more people drink ayahuasca, there will be more visionary fallout. People will decide to undergo rapid and regrettable sex changes. They will ink themselves from head to toe, like Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man. They will bellow revelations from building tops and get whisked away to secure cells. It is all going to happen. In the great and fabulous circus that is the explosion of ayahuasca into the public mind, every freaky, awkward, bizarre and outright nutso scenario that can play out, will.

In my own case, for three or four days after the retreat, when I was travelling on my own in Ecuador, I had the overwhelming sense that I was in a dream. I began to think the external world was being generated by my memory-imagination – the streets, the cars, the other people, the hotel, the sky, it was all my dream. My subconscious was constructing the people, the traffic, the planes, the sky. I didn’t know how to wake up, and how to return to the dimension where my loved ones were. So I travelled back from South America to the UK – a very strange few days in planes and airports. I was amazed at the ability of my subconscious to construct such a vivid reality – the 747 was so big, the KLM air-stewards were so Dutch!

Finally I got home, where my friends gave me a lot of hugs, and within a few days I decided this reality was real. I would still get moments of panic and ontological uncertainty, but I could practice my tools – slow breathing, acceptance, reminding myself that everything passes – and I would calm down and ride the waves. I realized the same spiritual tools worked – focus, acceptance, compassion – no matter how altered my mind or the reality I was in.

What I think happened was I took a spiritual insight – this reality is a dream constructed by our egos – and interpreted it literally – this is all my dream, and no one else is real. I managed to walk through that experience and keep calm. But if I’d panicked, and not had any spiritual training or a community of loving friends to take care of me for a few days, there’s a chance I’d have been sectioned, and even diagnosed as suffering from a life-long biological condition requiring a life-time of medication.

This sort of weird experience provokes so much fear in ourselves and other people. We’ve managed to overcome some of the stigma around depression and anxiety. But psychosis? We still find it terrifying. It is the nightmare Other of our rationalist society. In other cultures, there is still a sense that psychosis can have a meaning and a message for mainstream society, and that it’s a temporary place one may sometimes go to beyond the ordinary ego, rather than a lifetime exile to the rubbish heap of society. In our culture, psychiatry usually denies it any meaning or message, beyond a permanent brain disorder.

We need to have compassion for ourselves and each other, and compassion for those having transpersonal experiences where the boundaries of their ego are temporarily disordered. Such people are unlikely to fit into civilized conventions for a while, and we may need to be patient with them – in my case, for a few days, I literally needed help crossing the road, because I wasn’t sure if the cars were real. Experienced guides can help to steer people through their experiences so that they’re positive. And the rest of us can see these experiences as potentially pointing to something incredibly valuable and true – the ego is a fiction, reality is a hallucination, we are God…or something different to what we think, anyway.

Dougie / Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks – people in transpersonal moments may have difficulty navigating ordinary reality

One of the most interesting people I met this year was someone called Anthony Fidler, who helped to run the Zen retreat I went on in India. I watched him occasionally during the silent retreat, and thought, ‘wow, what a calm, collected person, that’s exactly what I want to be like when I practice more diligently’.

After the retreat, I got talking to him, and heard his story. He’d gone to Cambridge, trained to be an accountant, then had a breakdown, leading to psychotic episodes in his early 30s. Over the last decade, he has taught himself to manage his occasional moments of psychosis / unusual states of consciousness through spiritual practices, particularly breath-work, touch practices, and self-compassion. He’s also been helped by leaving the UK and travelling to cultures like India and China, where this sort of spiritual awakening is more accepted and less pathologized by the culture at large. 

Part of the transpersonal revolution needs to be an upgrading of our psychiatric healthcare system and our cultural attitudes so that we have better understanding and compassion for those going through temporary quasi-psychotic / spiritual awakenings, so we don’t immediately section them, pump them full of drugs, and label them as sufferers of life-long biological disorders called things like ‘bipolar’, ‘schizophrenia’ and so on.

Clearly there are some people who have mental disorders that require medication, and some people need to be institutionalized for a few weeks, months or even years for their safety and the safety of others. But psychiatrists have been far too quick to impose their own version of reality onto the most vulnerable people in our society, even though that version of reality is spiritually bereft.

Luckily we are already seeing changes in mental healthcare, driven by the transpersonal revolution. I wrote about some of these changes in The Art of Losing Control, in which I applauded the work of David Lukoff to get a new disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual called ‘religious or spiritual problem’ – ie a temporary spiritual stage rather than a lifelong biological condition. I applauded the work of the Hearing Voices Network, which supports people who might hear voices or see visions, including many people who are not hospitalized or on medication. I applauded the Spiritual Crisis Network, and the Spiritual Emergence Network, and I urge you all to read Spiritual Emergency by the Grofs.

Meditation, psychedelics, psychosis – the three are linked, all involving journeys beyond the fiction of the everyday ego. You see worried articles in the Daily Mail: can mindfulness lead to psychosis? Yes it can. Psychedelics can also lead to temporary psychosis, and in some sad cases it seems to trigger life-long psychosis in teenagers. However, with care and compassion and wisdom, the majority of these sorts of psychotic experiences can be temporary, and lead to positive outcomes.

The spiritual journey is not entirely safe. It’s not a linear journey into greater and greater serenity and happiness – this is one of the mistakes the West has made by reinterpreting spiritual practices like meditation in terms of this-world happiness. They weren’t designed to make the ego happy. They were designed to transcend the ego. And the ego does not want to be transcended. There’s an enormous amount of fear, clinging, pride and suffering that arises on the spiritual journey. That doesn’t mean we should be put off. If we don’t go on the journey, we’ll still suffer, but we”ll suffer in a circle, pointlessly, rather than suffering while advancing towards liberation. Go forward with boldness and hope, with kindness and humble curiosity. 

Tiffany Watt Smith’s TED Talk

Dr Tiffany Watt Smith of the QMUL Centre for the History of the Emotions and the Living With Feeling project recently gave a TED talk, asking how the history of emotions can help us think differently about emotional intelligence. The talk pays particular attention to the connection between words and feelings and is a brilliant 14-minute introduction to our field! You can read more of Tiffany’s work in her Book of Human Emotions.

Fetishizing memories: emotional objects in literature

Paolo Gervasi is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow at Queen Mary University of London, working on a project that analyses as emotional symptoms the presence of caricatures and deformations in literary texts. This is the text of the talk he gave on November 20th at the Royal College of Nursing in London for the event Emotional Objects: From Lost Amulets to Found Photos, organised by the Centre for the History of Emotions of Queen Mary University as part of the Being Human Festival 2017. The post is reposted with his permission from Paolo’s own blog


With this talk, I hope I can suggest a standpoint on the literary work of the Italian contemporary writer Michele Mari by showing how his writing is consistently focused on the relation between memories and objects. In his last book, Leggenda privata, an autobiography disguised as a horror story (but also the other way round: a horror story disguised as an autobiography), published a few months ago, he writes: ‘All my books are about the soul entrusted to things’.

Before going into Mari’s emotional fetishism, though, I want to introduce another outstanding fetishist, Marcel Proust.

I assume few people in the world, even among literary scholars, have read the thousands of pages of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927) entirely. But I’m pretty sure a fairly larger number of people know the most famous scene of the novel, whose main character is a traditional shell-shaped French cake, the madeleine.

Tasting the madeleine soaked in a cup of tea Marcel, the first person narrator, feels an unaccountable and deeply physical sensation of joy, which is associated with a stream of memories from his childhood. Places, objects, and feelings emanate from the cup of tea to be vividly projected before Marcel as in a theatre. Marcel realises he used to have the same cake when he was a child and comments:

The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. 

Hence, the madeleine has become one of the most popular emotional objects in literary history. The Museum of Illiers-Combray, the village where Proust spent his boyhood and which inspired part of the novel, reconstructed the rooms of Proust’s family house, and there for a long time displayed the actual cake.

Eventually, to prevent the deterioration of the cake, the Museum decided to create madeleine made of plastic. Far beyond Proust’s intention, the plastic madeleine strengthens the reification of emotions; it solidifies what for Proust was a fleeting sensation spreading not from the objects in itself, but from the relation with it.

Mari tells the story of the plastic madeleine in the foreword of his book Tutto il ferro della torre Eiffel (2002), a fanta-historical novel whose characters are among the most important intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century (philosophers, writers, artists, publishers, entrepreneurs), all of them obsessed by objects, and connected to each other through the exchange of objects. In the age of the triumph of commodities, for the fictional avatars of these thinkers, things become magic talismans that enable the vision of an alternative reality.

The magical power of “stuff” embodies the paradox of emotional objects: the human mind projects emotions into things; things absorb an emotional energy which increasingly detaches from human control. Objects seemingly assume an independent emotional life that we don’t fully recognise as ours. As for the plastic madeleine: did we really create such a thing? Or, in Mari’s terms: is this cheap and kitsch solidification the destiny of our imaginations?

On this mechanism of reification is grounded the creation of fetishes, which is anthropologically related to the origin of cults and religions. The Oxford Dictionary defines the fetish as ‘an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit’. Fetishes are objects whose emotional value is overcharged to the point of disrupting hierarchies between what is animate and what is inanimate, of reversing the relation of ownership. The fetish owns its owner.

Across time, several interpretations gathered around the concept of fetish. Famously, Sigmund Freud stated that we (and by “we” Freud generally means “men”) create fetishes insofar as we look for objects that can substitute our penis in case of castration. Or, we create fetishes as substitutions of the absent female penis. Karl Marx explained that capitalism forces us to attribute an emotional value to commodities because affection toward objects makes us more efficient and compulsive consumers. Walter Benjamin, not by chance the main character of Mari’s Tutto il ferro della torre Eiffel, overturned this idea and conceived fetishism as a liberation of the object from its functions, as a freely creative use of things.

Literature recursively explored the idea that when we interact with objects, we transfer to them some of our living substance. After its involvement in human activities, something alive inhabits the object, a portion of human vitality pulsates within it. In his collection Shorts, the poet W.H. Auden wrote:

Our tables and chairs and sofas

know things about us

our lovers can’t.

Sharing this belief, in 2015 Michele Mari conceived together with the photographer Francesco Pernigo what he called an autobiography by fetishes, titled Asterusher. A book composed of photographs of his most meaningful objects, conserved in his houses. Each image is commented by captions the author wrote specifically or passages from his previous books. Comments connect objects to key life experiences, according to the idea that, as he wrote, ‘our memories are themselves fetishes’.

The title of the book merges two tales: The House of Asterion by Jorge Luis Borges and The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allan Poe. In both tales, the house is conceived as a living organism and a sort of material extension of the owner’s body and mind. Inspired by these tales, Mari places side by side his experience of the house and the experience of the ghost he imagined in his book Fantasmagonia (2012). For both of them, inhabiting a house means ‘breathing the molecules of which the house is made’, and thus ‘becoming part of the house itself’. For the ghost, as for the writer, contemplating a particular spot or object of the house is ‘to gaze from within a precise point of his own mind’.

The mind of the author is displaced in the spaces he inhabits. Hence the tight entanglement he establishes between his familiar things and emotional and psychological conditions.

In another of the tales published in Fantasmagonia, titled Ballata triste di una tromba, Mari imagines a character who collects things as material equivalents of his memories, objects embodying feelings connected to specific life experiences:

This oak branch is our father; every time I miss him, or when I can’t remember his smile, I hold tight the branch and I’m again together with him. This violet quartz is the revolution: when I can’t figure out anymore what we wanted, I brush its crystals and remember. This crown cap it’s my childhood: to handle it is really dangerous. […] This marble is someone who once betrayed me. This ring is a dog. This spoon, a house.

Objects create, as Mari writes, ‘a perfect correspondence of images and emotions’. In objects, he embodies his fears, traumas, and psychic distresses. With the idea that once emotions are reified, are made solid, they can be handled. Once emotions are outside us, can be observed, questioned, and even understood.

Dangerous presumption. In fact, objects turned into fetishes have supernatural powers. They can’t bear to be dominated. They are dominant. They have their own agency; they impose their agenda, which is slightly different from the owner’s.

Emotional objects can eerily start to question us back. They can become scary, as children know very well. The child lives in an enchanted world where objects hide presences, where spirits and monsters do exist and disguise themselves underneath the appearances of everyday life. As in this passage from Asterusher:

Who lifts the cloth and the piano’s lid, by night? Who brushes the keys with pale fingers? Since I was a child I knew that was the dark woman of the painting, who would follow me with her gaze while I moved; and at whose eyes it was better – it is better – not to look too much.

Most of Mari’s emotional objects are vestiges of childhood. In one of the tales of the book Tu, sanguinosa infanzia (1997), he writes that the comic books he used to read as a kid are ‘documents, fossils […] little corpses that refuse to die […] monstrous clots, superhuman concentrate of melancholy, monuments to my solitude, sacred things!’.

The early and consuming passion of the young writer for reading triggers fetishization. Mari doesn’t simply read books; he physically merges with books. In Leggenda privata he writes:

When I was a child, I started to transfer particles of my soul in the books I read, until the full displacement. This way I could circulate the world as an insensitive golem without suffering too many damages, and when I wanted to recover a bit of my soul, I would have gone and look for it where I concealed it, in books.

Similarly, in one of the tales of Euridice aveva un cane (1993) Mari imagines an autobiographical young boy who in the library can hide from the threats of the outside world, and escape the precariousness and uncertainty of life, contrasted by the stability of objects:

It was precisely to look at the world around me as little as possible that in the last years I almost didn’t exit the library, where at least everything was as it used to be, the time-yellowed books and the damp stains on the wall.

But once again, what is supposed to be a shelter undergoes an eerie twist. The shelter becomes a prison: Mari finds himself literally trapped in books. And the evil wizard who provokes the entrapment is his father.

Enzo Mari, Michele’s father, is a renowned designer. He is also a pretty tough, unemotional, dogmatic man. The father-son relationship has always been troubled by Enzo’s rages, silences, and strict educational beliefs. In Leggenda privata Mari writes that the temper of his father ‘is situated at the junction of Moses with John Huston’, a popular actor in gangster movies. And he adds: ‘the specific quality of my attitude toward him is ADMIRED TERROR’, with capital letters.

In 1966 Enzo Mari was asked to design the cover of the Italian edition of a book by the child psychologist Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of the World. To realise the cover, Enzo uses the multiplied image of his son Michele, the future writer. Whose comment in Asterusher is: ‘prisoner of one book, prisoner of the books’.

Forever imprisoned, and forever a child. The father established the material, physical bond between Michele and books as objects. But also, the father has stuck the son within the child’s conception of the world, as for the title of the book.

In the tale Il giro del mondo, Mari imagines a dialogue in which his mother tells him: you’re not anymore the baby you used to be, that baby died. His answer is:

No! This is the point; I still have the same fears, I’m still there, as the baby of the talcum powder’s jar, laying in the nurse’s lap surrounded by those liberty flourishes.

The never-ending childhood has his major witness in the teddy-bear, which appears in the tale L’uomo che uccise Liberty Valance:

… the love of all loves, the teddy-bear, which I called with the tender name orsino, my bear made of grey ripped yellowed cloth, stained, blinded, peed-on, crushed.

In this tale, the father is the “guardian” of the teddy-bear, the one who returns it to the adult son to remind him that, despite being ruined by time, the toy is stubbornly alive and present, as much as the memories it conveys. The father is the master of toys because he is the master of emotions and also, as a designer, the master of objects. He doesn’t play with his son, but he designs worldwide popular toys, as mentioned in Asterusher:

My father’s Sixteen Animals, now exhibited in museums all over the world, had a prototype: this. In the first years of my life, I continuously played with them, lodging and dislodging pieces, moving and combining them in always new stories, throwing them, colouring them, carving them.

While being a substantially undemonstrative, uncaring parent, Enzo puts all his creative energy and passion in designing meaningful objects, in shaping useful things. As a consequence, his son, the writer, is obsessed with objects and entrusts things with an overwhelming emotional energy. Objects are literally alive for him because they are inhabited by substitute feelings, the feelings he can’t exchange with his father. Fetishes are simultaneously the embodiment of his psychological traumas, and the antidote to them, particularly when elaborated in writing.

Indeed, the emotional intercourse with objects also influences Mari’s mind as a writer. In these two heads his father showed him when he was a kid, Mari could foresee the recurring themes of his writing, his literary obsessions:

The first is the head of the man I used to call “the sir”: the second, which I always felt not just as opposed and antithetical but also as complementary, is the head of the “monster”. This sneering monster, before anyone told me the story of Jekyll and Hide, has always been to me the deformation of the “sir”, his tension and his destiny: if not his permanent truth. Hence the conclusion: the reassuring face was the face of deception, and the monstrous face was the face of sincerity.

The duplicity of human nature, the cohabitation of bestial and sublime drives, monstrosity and beauty, heavenly and earthly aspirations, is consistently represented in Mari’s major literary works, and particularly in his most complex novel, Di bestia in bestia (1989 and, in a deeply revised version, 2013).

Reflecting on his literary rendering of objects, in Leggenda privata Mari also states: ‘We are exactly this: our writing and our things’. But for him, the writing and the things end up coinciding. He fetishizes the material tools of writing, preserving the pens and pencils he actually used, as the materialization of his commitment, as the testimony of his strict self-discipline and loyalty to the past.

Judging from his attitude toward manic preservation, can Mari be described as a hoarder? Is his collecting comparable to what is referred to as hoarding disorder, that is, the pathological compulsive accumulation of things and a suggestive “metaphor” of our age on the verge of post-humanism?

I think the answer is no and this is important to understand what a fetish is. Despite his inclination to obsessive collecting, Mari’s emotional bond with objects is substantially different from indistinctive accumulation. Indeed, Mari conceives fetishism as opposed to hoarding: the fetish is about quality, it is the surrender to the unique and unrepeatable emotional energy of a single object; hoarding is about quantity, it is the surrender to the anxiety provoked by the overwhelming siege of things. Or, as proposed by Jane Bennett in her claim for a “new materialism”, hoarding is a way to listen to the ‘voice of things’, and the attempt to establish a new alliance between human vitality and the living energy of matter.

Though, the power of the hoard diverges from the vitality of fetishism. This becomes more evident when Mari’s rendering of emotional objects is compared to other examples of object-oriented narratives in post-modern literature. In Safran Foer’s celebrated novel Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close, for instance, characters accumulate objects while engaged in life-repairing researches. But their accumulation is a clearly misleading way to fight insignificance. The object’s supposed meanings are deceitful. Safran Foer’s characters are close to the hoarding disorder; they look for quantity because they can’t find quality. As the hoarder, they can’t find meaning in a single object; oneness is untrustworthy, no object is special.

For Mari, instead, the meanings embodied in objects are truthful. Objects are conserved, described, worshipped because of their absolute and unmistakable emotional quality. And they are trustworthy to the point that they are expected to overcome time and death. Such as these creepy embalmed pieces of food:

Arbitrarily abstracted by my father from time (and more matter-of-factly from our ingestion), these pasta and legumes became immortal, as insects in amber, as dead languages, far more alive after their death.

The disturbing suspect that objects can outlive us is also expressed by Franz Kafka in his tale The Cares of a Family Man, whose fundamental character is the Odradek, a mysterious creature, as the narrating voice calls it, a living thing which inscrutably intersects human life and unclearly interact with it.

Odradek is a star-shaped spool for thread, with broken-off bits of thread wound upon-it. Thanks to two wooden crossbars, he (Kafka refers to Odradek as he) can stand upright as if on two legs. He appears in several places of the house, garrets, stairways, lobbies, entrance halls. Then disappears for months, but he always comes faithfully back. Sometimes he speaks and utters his strange name, sometimes ‘he stays mute for a long time, as wooden as his appearance’.

Odradek embodies the paradox of emotional objects I mentioned earlier, which implies their eeriness and ambiguity. Objects seem to absorb humanity and almost learn human-like agencies, just to acquire a stubborn independence from humans. As confirmed by the final question of the tale:

Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.

In this contradiction lies the mystery of emotional objects: we simultaneously fear and hope that the living spark we put in them is going to survive us.


Emotional Objects was the Centre for the History of the Emotions’ contribution to the 2017 Being Human festival. This drop-in festival-style event explored emotions and how they are shaped by the objects around them.