Copyright © 2016 by Sergey Baranov. All rights reserved.
Psychedelic simply means ‘mind manifesting’ (mind = psyche, manifest = delos), a term first coined by doctor Humphry Osmond while preparing for a psychiatric conference in 1956 in New York. He was the same doctor who had administered mescaline, a naturally occurring alkaloid in the Peyote and San Pedro cactus, to Aldous Huxley, who wrote about his experience in his epic book The Doors Of Perception. This term was a more fitting one than those previously used, such as ‘hallucinogens’ or ‘psychotomimetics’. However, even the term psychedelics, or even the more modern ‘entheogens’, which means ‘manifesting divine from within’, cannot fully express the rich totality of the experience that is attempting to be described.
Before I begin my personal exploration of altered states of consciousness, I would like to share a story once told to me by a middle aged Russian man who had never had or even heard of psychedelic experiences. He joined a conversation I was having with a friend about shamanism and spiritual realms. After being quiet for some time he asked if he could share his story. He said he felt that we were the guys who would understand him and we were the first people with whom he was sharing this with after many years of silence.
Listening eagerly, we learnt about the time when he and his wife went to gather mushrooms and later cooked them for a dinner. It was not the first time they were doing it; rather, it was something they did often, as was normal and customary where they lived in Russia. Apparently, this time they had gone beyond their usual routine and picking route. His wife had gathered some ’wrong’ mushrooms, which were different but similar-looking to those they usually picked in the forest. Instead of heading to bed after a late dinner, he was set for a journey he wasn’t ready for. Since having had neither preparation nor guidance, he simply thought he had got mushroom poisoning and was going mad, dying or both.
His description of attending his own funeral was actually rather humorous. Hearing this from an ordinary Russian man, who was raised behind the iron curtain and had never previously contemplated anything he had experienced that night, was especially interesting. This mushroom experience had completely shattered his perception of reality forcing him to think in a new direction, searching for answers to questions he never had before.
I forgot about this story until years later when I read about Gordon Wasson, an American banker, who had a strikingly similar experience with his Russian wife Valentina Pavlovna who had also picked the ‘wrong’ mushrooms in the forest and forced her husband on a life changing journey. The similarities were stunning!
Pondering these incidents I couldn’t help but think about ancient peoples, who on their search for food could have stumbled upon comparable mushrooms or plants in the same surprising way, and the impact these encounters could have had on their lives and their culture. I could relate to this personally since my life has changed completely since I encountered shamanic plants – sacred cacti in particular – even though in my case I was searching for them consciously.
Observing the transformative power of these wondrous plants on myself, I have often thought about the potential for a cultural change if plant-based shamanic education would be introduced to the West. This could potentially be a vital catalyst in leading humanity in a different direction and to a new collective level of being.
One could ask what this level would look like if it could be achieved?
For one, it would mean a shift in collective consciousness, so as we can evolve as a species toward a benevolent and harmonious way of existence, guaranteeing a future for the world. To any decent human being, regardless of his or her faith or lack thereof, this trend would naturally seem a positive one. Would it not be a great achievement to be able to replace the vacuous values of a spiritually void, profit driven, violent culture, with another set of cultural values, such as respect for each other, respect for the environment and respect for all life forms on Earth? Basic and fundamental ancient values in fact.
We are living in a world where nuclear bombs are legal and certain naturally occurring plants are not. And this is the insanity we call ‘civilization’. I imagine that a truly civilized society would be a place for the cultivation of consciousness, prosperity and peace – exactly the opposite of what we see today. Psychedelics are not illegal because someone is concerned for your mental or physical health, but rather because they are capable of triggering personal change that could potentially interfere with your cultural conditioning. Psychedelics may heighten awareness of your body as the primary source of your life experience, and how its needs are so often neglected and made taboo. They may help you see through the illusions, patterns and effects of the consumerist mentality, dogmatic religious beliefs and political and ideological views; the great dividers of humanity.
We should look at psychedelics as powerful tools for studying the inner world of man, just as the telescope is used as an instrument to study stars. That which is seen and learned through the telescope will remain unknown to the man who looks at the stars with the naked eye. And just as the telescope helps to focus the light emitted from the darker corners of the cosmos, thus making it visible, in a similar manner psychedelics help us to focus attention on our consciousness, magnifying it to a comprehensible size.
So what exactly is a psychedelic experience?
Well firstly, it is certainly not contained in the words describing it. It is in fact a wordless, internal and intimate encounter with the ‘Other’, which has many faces. When we refer to the mescaline experience in particular, the closest word to describe an indescribable experience may be: ‘beatific vision’, as it has been rightly noted through the ages by mystics. We can write poetry about it and still be far from the experience itself. Words are only symbols, a finger pointing to the moon, not the moon itself. “Words are uttered, but fail to enlighten”, as Aldous Huxley said. Through mescaline, one gains an admission to the ‘real’ world, escaping the limitations of linguistic confinement, which although offers a rich and often beautiful tapestry of words and concepts, is too frequently a prison.
The validation of this experience lies within the personal quest and solitary journey of the individual, even when taken together with others. It’s like life and death; we are born and die alone, and it is the same with the psychedelic journey. A mescaline experience is capable of opening the inner vision, revealing the unseen. It is a key with which we are able to unlock the mental shackles and set the mind free. It is the fuel we need to reach the stars without taking off the ground.
In terms of a scientific understanding of this experience, the psychedelic cannot be viewed and studied merely scientifically as chemical reactions in the brain. A complete study should include the scientists who are on the case having the experience themselves. How could one otherwise learn about water without ever getting wet? This whole phenomenon belongs to another order; another realm of consciousness, which although undeniably exists, cannot be measured or shown on a screen. It belongs in the world of metaphysics, which is a fundamental aspect of human existence.
Another question often asked: Is the psychedelic experience real?
Well, that depends on what we think of as being ‘real’. If we think that real is something we can touch with our hands, then the answer is NO. But if real means something which can be observed and repeatedly experienced, learning from and applied in daily life, then the answer is most certainly YES.
But is it objective?
Any type of experience can ultimately only be subjective, since any experience requires a subject to be experienced. Thus objective reality can be only experienced subjectively.
Is the psychedelic experience beneficial?
Well, that would depend on the person. There is no cure for stupidity that I am aware of. But generally speaking, the responsible use of psychedelics can be very beneficial for most people, and not only for the person who is experiencing them, but for their family, their surroundings and ultimately to the world we live in at large. It can be likened to the alchemical process during which the impurities in man are burnt, purifying him into a better person.
If the experience is able to have an impact on our behavioral patterns while helping us stop being destructive to ourselves and others; if it can trigger both physiological and psychological healing, helping a person to get rid of self-destructive behaviors such as alcohol and drug addictions, while in itself remaining non-addictive; if it has the capacity to open artistic and cognitive abilities which otherwise would remain in latent form, and really make one think and feel, thus contributing to the cultivation of peace, love and consciousness within oneself and surrounding — then what would the answer be?
Having said that, however, it is also important to mention that no psychedelic substances or plants should be taken lightly. It is a serious undertaking for mature and responsible people who are looking for healing, understanding and expansion of their perception of reality, and willing to engage with life, instead of escaping it. Psychedelics can be likened to the tools with which a carpenter can build and repair a building’s framework. In the same way, a spiritual seeker can reconstruct a paradigm. But when a hummer is used without paying attention and focusing on the nail, it can land on a finger. It is the same with the use of psychedelics.
Psychedelics when used properly can emphasize the importance of the individual experience with an enhanced depth and intensity, which along with innumerable insights, can provide an enhanced taste and appreciation for life, bringing attention and focus back to the fullness of being of he or she who is experiencing it.