What is real, anyhow? Erik Davis on visionary experiences and the high weirdness of the seventies counterculture
Last night I digitally stumbled across this:
It’s Erik Davis’s senior thesis, written as he was pursuing his Ph.D. in religious studies at Rice University, and submitted just last fall. You’ll recall that I mentioned Erik’s study of this same high weirdness last year (and that he and I, and also Maja D’Aoust, had a good conversation about daemonic creativity and related matters a few years ago). Now here’s this, the scholarly fruit of his several years of research and writing, and it promises to be a fantastic — in several senses — read.
For me, at least, it’s also laden with mild synchronistic significance. I’m presently teaching an introduction to world religions course using Comparing Religions by Jeffrey J. Kripal as the main textbook, so I’m spending a lot of time immersed in Jeff’s thoughtworld, and also helping undergraduate college students to understand it. In the past two weeks I have had a couple of email communications with Jeff in connection with the crucial networking assistance that he provided in the early stages of Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics as I was attempting to locate suitable contributors for the book. And then just last night as I was staring at my laptop screen and realizing with pleasure that I had accidentally found Erik’s thesis on the UFOs, synchronicities, psychedelic visions, alien voices, and other crazy anomalistic weirdnesses that characterized the seventies counterculture, I scanned down the cover page and had another surprise when I saw Jeffrey J. Kripal listed as a member of his thesis committee. It’s not a synchronicity in the same league as, say, Jung’s seminal encounter with the scarabaeid beetle, but it was enough to give me a start and a chuckle.
Read the rest of this entry
Dr. James Fadiman
Just published and now available here at The Teeming Brain: my interview/conversation with Dr. James Fadiman, one of the pioneers of transpersonal psychology and modern research into the spiritual and therapeutic applications of psychedelics. This has been a long time in coming, for reasons that I explain in the interview’s introduction.
The interview is ten thousand words, so be prepared to settle in. A lot of what we talk about focuses on the practical and philosophical inadequacies of dogmatic scientific materialism in dealing with things like anomalous and paranormal experiences such as inspiration and perceived communication or encounters with supernatural entities. Here’s a key excerpt:
JAMES FADIMAN: The reductionists eventually paint themselves into a corner. Consider the people who talk about the neurophysiology of dreams. They say, “Look, here’s this little part of the brain that turns on when you’re dreaming, and therefore dreams are psychophysiological in nature.” Then we ask, well, what generates a sex dream, a dream where a dead person appears with information, and a dream where you’re seated before a large pizza? And of course they say, “Why don’t you just go away.”
MATT CARDIN: I think you’re raising the basic question of phenomenology as it relates to ontology.
JAMES FADIMAN: But if you take the position that the brain is the place through which consciousness moves, so that it acts kind of like a radio, then all of those different dreams are much more understandable, because we can say they’re coming from different channels, different stations, different gods, different muses. And that makes much more sense. . . . Science’s fundamental error is a religious sort. Science says, “Certain data (since we know it does not exist) you shall not look upon.” Science holds up the story of the church and Galileo to emphasize how dogmatic the church was in its refusal to look at evidence. But if you say to scientists, “What do you know about telepathy? What do you know about clairvoyance? What do you know about near-death experiences?” they say, “Those don’t exist, and I’ve never spent a moment looking at the evidence, because they can’t exist” . . . . Scientism — science as a religion — and science are quite far apart. You see, I think I’m a scientist. That means that anything that happens, whether subjective, objective, sensory or whatever, I look at it. That may be due to my psychedelic experiences, which reminded me that, “Whatever you think the world is made of, James, you have a very limited view.” My muse chimes in and says, “Obviously, if you look at the size of the universe and contrast it with the size of your brain, the chances of your being able to know everything are statistically almost non-existent.”
A bottle of LSD from a Swiss clinical trial for end-of-life anxiety in cancer patients, circa 2007, conducted by Dr. Peter Gasser, sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
Ladies and gentlemen, the ongoing incursion of the new psychedelic research renaissance into the mainstream American mediasphere has officially reached critical mass. Behold NPR:
Today, psychedelic drug research is coming back, and scientists are picking up where Leary and other researchers left off, conducting experiments on therapeutic uses of these drugs. But the research still faces stigma, and funding is hard to get.
. . . Stanislav Grof was one of the leading researchers on the therapeutic applications of LSD in the 1950s and ’60s. He studied the effect of hallucinogens on mental disorders, including addiction. Grof says LSD seemed to accelerate treatment of mental illness exponentially. “It was quite extraordinary,” Grof tells NPR’s Arun Rath. “This was a tremendous deepening and acceleration of the psychotherapeutic process, and compared with the therapy in general, which mostly focuses on suppression of symptoms, here we had something that could actually get to the core of the problems.”
But the pervasive image of LSD was that it was not an acceptable treatment. The Schedule 1 classification of LSD and other hallucinogenic substances in 1970 was a huge blow to research. Grof abandoned his experiments on alcoholism. Through the “Just Say No” campaigns of the 1980s, no researchers were willing to jump through all the hoops necessary to study stigmatized drugs.
But by the ’90s, attitudes had begun to change, and there was a flurry of studies on psychedelic drugs. By the 2000s, a small but growing research community was picking up where Grof and others had left off.
. . . [Charles Grob of the University of California, Los Angeles] has been approved to begin a new study next month on social anxiety in adults on the autism spectrum and the drug MDMA. He says the country needs to recognize that the ’60s are over and that Timothy Leary is gone and no longer on the stage. “I believe we are on the threshold of some very exciting discoveries,” he says, “that the health field can only benefit from.”
Image by Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (http://www.maps.org/images/lsdimages.html) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Over the last year, I have been working on a new documentary called “Weed.” The title “Weed” may sound cavalier, but the content is not. I traveled around the world to interview medical leaders, experts, growers and patients. I spoke candidly to them, asking tough questions. What I found was stunning. Long before I began this project, I had steadily reviewed the scientific literature on medical marijuana from the United States and thought it was fairly unimpressive.
Well, I am here to apologize. I apologize because I didn’t look hard enough, until now. I didn’t look far enough. I didn’t review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis. Instead, I lumped them with the high-visibility malingerers, just looking to get high. I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a schedule 1 substance because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse.”
They didn’t have the science to support that claim, and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works.
[. . .] I have. . . come to the realization that it is irresponsible not to provide the best care we can as a medical community, care that could involve marijuana. We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.
— “Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Why I changed my mind on marijuana,” CNN, August 9, 2013
Also see Gupta’s appearance on a recent CNN program devoted to the question of medicine, marijuana, and the legal restrictions on certain substances:
Did you hear all of that? And did you really listen and consider its implications? Methinks this development could prove to represent an authentic sea change in the marijuana legalization wars. When a person of Gupta’s public status and visibility puts himself and his reputation on the line over something like this, the ramifications are immense.
Nor are they limited to the matter of medicine and marijuana as such. Notice that a statement like Gupta’s carries implications far exceeding its nominal topic. We in America have been “systematically” lied to by our government, he says. As in, deliberately and strategically. This naturally leads to further questions. Read the rest of this entry
Alan Watts has long been one of my foundational philosophical influences. I think his writing style, famed for its almost preternatural lucidity and grace, has also influenced me by giving me a model to emulate. “Nobody could write like Watts, nobody,” Ken Wilber once observed in an interview for ReVision: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation.
This is one among many reasons why I was very pleased when the opportunity arose for me to review the new edition of Watts’s long out-of-print book The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness for New York Journal of Books. And I was doubly pleased because this new edition comes with a new introduction by Daniel Pinchbeck (to add to the book’s original foreword by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert). Pinchbeck’s presence places the book right where it belongs: in the middle of the currently surging renaissance and exploding conversation about psychedelics and the apocalyptic transformation of consciousness and culture that occupies an expanding segment of our collective global civilization.
Here’s my review, in a slightly longer form than what appeared at New York Journal of Books a couple of weeks ago. Note that Pinchbeck’s introduction, which I quote from, can be read in its entirety at Reality Sandwich, along with the full text of Watts’s prologue.
* * *
The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness, by Alan Watts. New World Library, 2013. 119 pages.
Reviewed by Matt Cardin
The decision by New World Library to publish a new edition of The Joyous Cosmology could not be timelier. The book was brilliant and piercingly relevant when it first appeared in 1962, and far from diminishing these qualities, the intervening half-century has only served to amplify them. Read the rest of this entry
It’s not that you, and I, and all of us, don’t already know that the consciousness revolution is back on, and that the psychedelic research that was aborted in the 1960s has now returned with a vengeance, and that it’s not just the medical and scientific aspects but the general cultural effects of the whole thing that are likely to be profound. It’s not that we haven’t noted such things here before.
It’s that suddenly, in the last several weeks, there’s an outpouring of cool mainstream journalism about it, mostly occasioned by the Psychedelic Science 2013 conference that was held in Oakland, California in April. Taken en masse, it provides a very nice bird’s-eye view of the present scientific situation and cultural moment. Read the rest of this entry
In his new book The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience, English professor, writer, and classical guitarist Robert Tindall, writing with psychology professor and transpersonal psychotherapist Susana Bustos, “Weav[es] together the narrative traditions of the ancient Greeks and Celts, the mythopoetic work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and the voices of plant medicine healers in North and South America [in order to] explore the use of healing songs, psychoactive plants, and vision quests at the heart of the Odyssey, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Tolkien’s final novella, Smith of Wootton Major.”
The words “heady” and “fascinating” seem insufficient to describe such a book. They’re also insufficient to describe the interview with Tindall that was published in February at Reality Sandwich. In addition to telling interviewer J. P. Harpignies about the motivations and origins behind the book, Tindall ably articulates the fatal problem with our contemporary Western worldview that combines a quasi-Cartesian rationalism with a reductive scientific materialism. He also addresses the ontological question of the reality or unreality of the beings encountered in visionary states.
For these and other reasons, my wholehearted recommendation is: click. Read. Slowly. Attentively. The following extended excerpts are just a small part of the whole.
TINDALL: When I first sat down to write on the striking parallels between the mythology of the ancient Greeks and the cosmovision of contemporary Amazonian peoples I thought I was writing a short article. Sixty pages later I knew I had a hydra on my hands, and I wasn’t able to lop off heads fast enough.
In order to explain how it was possible for the Sirens in Homer’s epic and the sirenas of the Amazonian waterways to be so uncannily similar, I realized I needed to explore the consciousness underlying these experiences among traditional peoples. It turned out that there is a primal experience of “permeability,” of a transparency to the elements, animals, spirits, stars, which has allowed human beings over the millennia to experience the sentience of the cosmos and derive valuable information from that communion. I eventually realized that this “primal mind,” sometimes derided as “animism,” underlies not only Homer’s work, but is also markedly present in the works of other authors central to the Western European literary canon, such as Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien has been a great inspiration to me ever since I was a boy. The cosmovision of The Lord of the Rings made more sense to me than anything else in the barren Reagan-era culture I grew up in the 1980s, and during my studies of medieval literature in the university I found myself following in Tolkien’s footsteps academically as well. Tolkien’s express purpose was to re-inject the vitality of the pre-Christian oral tradition back into the enervated Western imagination. He termed his endeavor “mythopoeic,” and some of his earliest writings are clear evocations of the primal mind of our ancestors. Given that my purpose was to revitalize the cosmovision of the Odyssey, I found myself enlisting the old master’s support.
. . . I think Tolkien has been cast in the mold of a brilliant academic with a marvelous, far-ranging imagination, yet a man of essentially modern rationality. I disagree. I think there’s more to Tolkien’s creative experience than is recognized.
. . . We’ve ended up in a narrow corridor of perception, one that privileges Cartesian consciousness as “normal,” the standard by which the worldviews of other cultures are measured. Yet, in fact, viewed ethnographically, the modern style of perception is rather peculiar. Who in their right mind would believe in a dead, mechanical universe, and of themselves as the sole arbiters of the meaning of their existence?
. . . HARPIGNIES: You seem to accept fairly literally some of the “magical” experiences described by some shamans and other practitioners you interview — episodes of “animal becoming,” of astral travel, of seemingly miraculous healings, of abduction by spiritual entities such as water spirits in the Amazon, etc. Are you convinced that these are objective phenomena, i.e. that these spiritual entities or forces are fully autonomous of [sic] humans and “real” in some way, or do you consider these phenomena too mysterious to fully understand and categorize?
TINDALL: “Real” is an elusive concept, especially in the world of shamanism. I know I went through a painful shift of paradigm during my first year of apprenticeship in the shamanic traditions of the rainforest. As an educated Westerner, I had been open to Jung’s ideas of archetypes and had experienced meditative states during my training as a Zen Buddhist, but my default setting was essentially Cartesian: I think, therefore I am. I was the center of the show, the only real consciousness in charge, and the idea of “spirits” or “entities” was a bit distasteful, if not downright spooky.
It was therefore with a mixed sense of wonder — Oh, brave new world! — and profound existential disorientation that I began to discover my little consciousness was only one wavelength in a vast transmission of sentience that permeated everything. Ugh. I wanted to crawl under a rock.
Somehow, with the support of those around me, I weathered it. I think it’s the process of adaptation, of crossing frontiers into other states of consciousness, which is far more interesting than the question of the ontology of spirits.
Really, phenomenologically speaking, we have raw experience, and that’s it. What I found in my own apprenticeship is encountering “spirits” that inhabit a vital cosmovision is the same as running your hand over the bark of a tree, diving into a river, or talking with your child. Things that go bump in the shamanic night all fit the criteria for “objectively out there real stuff” — and have real consequences in the daylight world.
In this sense, asking whether one “believes” in the reality of spirits is rather like asking if one “believes” in the reality of the ocean. The answer could be yes, but it seems rather awkward to say so.
— J. P. Harpignies, “Embarking Upon the Shamanic Odyssey: A Talk with Robert Tindall,” Reality Sandwich, February 18, 2o13
The Mask Behind the Face, the collection of metaphysical horror fiction by Teeming Brain contributor Stuart Young (see his column Sparking Neurones), was short-listed for the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 2006, and the title story — about brain disease, psychedelics, and the far outer and deep inner reaches of consciousness — ended up winning the award for Best Novella. Now its publisher, the UK-based Pendragon Press, is offering ten copies for free.
Here are the details:
Ten copies of Stuart Young’s The Mask Behind the Face up for grabs if you can answer the following question: who wrote the introduction to this collection?
First ten folk to join the Pendragon mailing list by this Friday and confirm their answer via email to Chris at pendragonpress dot net will receive a copy — unfortunately, I’ll have to invoice folk from overseas postage costs.
Note that the promotion launched just today, so “this Friday” means Friday, January 18. For the form to join Pendragon’s mailing list, visit the Pendragon Press site and see the right sidebar.
As for the novella that forms the book’s centerpiece, be advised that it’s a stellar piece of work offering a deeply personal and emotional take on its mind-bursting central subject. Here’s some enthusiastic praise from several people you’ve heard of:
“Emotional, brilliant and scary as hell.” – Brian Keene
“This is horror fiction as it should be: real, confrontational, yet simple, honest and intimate.” – Gary McMahon
“Wow, what an impressive story … ambitious, in fact downright audacious.” – T.E.D. Klein
“No one can accuse Stuart Young of avoiding the big issues — with insight and verve, he tackles head-on the existence of God, the mystery of human consciousness and the transformative effects of psychedelic drugs.” – Mark Chadbourn