“More real than reality itself.” This is the sales pitch made by fans of dimethyltryptamine. Otherwise known as DMT, the compound found in ayahuasca returned to the spotlight recently thanks to Prince Harry’s description of his trips, which, he says, “cleared the windshield” of trauma from his mother’s death. Indeed, psychedelic drugs have shown some promise in treating disorders ranging from depression to PTSD; their proponents have suggested that the apparently mystical experiences they inspire could play a role in everything from preventing war to enabling a future of “net zero trauma”. These “psychotechnologies” often seem to work by providing, in the words of Walter Benjamin, a kind of “profane illumination”: a taste of something real.
Psychedelic trips have played a part in mystical traditions for millennia, but their revival comes at a time when our old religions are endangered. The march of Reason and Evidence has left a gaping void; we are surrounded by a bubbling sea of Unreality. Television, billboards and newspapers first threatened the dam between dreams and waking consciousness; Twitter, Netflix and the smartphone, always there and nudging away, have blasted it asunder.
In place of structural changes, or indeed religious ones, the system defaults to plaster solutions, offering mere jolts of aliveness. The “altered states economy”, now generating as much as $4 trillion worldwide, offers a range of techniques to tap into the Real, or at least muffle the Unreal. There’s alcohol and disposable vape pens, video gaming and high-intensity sports, breathwork, meditation apps — and now, the legal psychedelic drug, perhaps the most significant launchpad to sacred states yet.
Medical authorities in Oregon are set to roll out psychedelic therapy this year, while many cities and states in the US have, to various extents, decriminalised the drugs. Meanwhile, Mexico is tapping into the market for psychedelic experiences still illegal in the US: the Guardian reported yesterday on clinics set up just over the border that offer courses of the powerful psychedelic ibogaine as treatment for trauma.
The faith we once put in transcendent states has been swiftly industrialised. A scan of the current psychedelic market reveals a strange mix of Big Pharma and young start-ups, such as ATAI, a Peter Thiel-funded firm. Its founder, Christian Angermayer, has been accused of manoeuvring to dominate the psychedelic market through zealous patenting strategies. He envisions his trials as perpetuations of mystical traditions from Ancient Greece. More than 2,000 years later, though, “profane illumination” is now under the microscope, dissected, refashioned as a tool. Only when validated in scientific, psychiatric discourse is it taken seriously. The industrial boom has happened in tandem with an enormous amount of research, much of it funded (with likely biasing effects) by profit-driven entities.
Whereas psychedelic culture used to be defined by its naive subjectivism — you have to take it to know what it’s like, man! — a kind of naive objectivism has taken its place. On a scale of one-to-five, the Mystical Experience Questionnaire asks trial participants, how would you “sense that [your psychedelic] experience cannot be described adequately in words”?
Our grasping search for the Real is heading for more disturbing developments still. As documented by the scholars Maxim Tvorun-Dunn and Tehseen Noorani, efforts are underway to render “psychedelic medicine” continuous with growing suites of “digital therapeutics”. Some firms plan to substitute post-trip in-person therapy for an app. Other companies intend to track and harvest data from clients’ voyages, via wearable devices that “personalise” and “facilitate” the “clinical experience”.
The ketamine market in the United States offers a terrifying glimpse at this future of runaway capital. In some so-called “McKetamine” clinics, users are shuttled through a pricey yet cost-minimised production line of “profane illuminations”, with little after-support — despite serious risks of addiction, psychosis, and permanent visual disturbances. One such company, Peak, thankfully shut down its operations amid a backlash to its flagrant promotional strategy, which included online consultations lasting two minutes and promises to “cure depression forever”.
Such absurdly utopian rhetoric abounds among the proponents of psychedelics, who include many powerful people in the tech world. Certain transhumanist thinkers in Silicon Valley have called for more research into drugs that produce permanent bliss states without side effects; theirs is an “abolitionist” ideology that seeks to eliminate all conscious suffering from the universe. Meanwhile Elon Musk, who hints strongly at a taste for psychedelics like the aforementioned DMT, has expressed hopes of “extend[ing] the light of consciousness to the stars”, in tandem with technology: his Neuralink brain-machine interface is set to commence human trials in 2023.
This language goes beyond aspiration, or even idealism: it’s a simulated religion. Inconveniently, there are dangers in viewing our search for God as a technical problem — one that can be solved through human ingenuity. The current psychedelic landscape is greatly influenced by Carl Jung, whose acolyte Stanislav Grof administered LSD in more than 5,000 sessions in communist Czechoslovakia. Yet Jung was famously suspicious of what he called “the pure gifts of the Gods”, described and promoted by early “psychonauts” such as Osmond and Huxley. More than anything, Jung suggests, we ought to engage with the psyche on its own terms, as a mysterious and subterranean layer of reality that can’t necessarily be gauged in the terms of Reason that govern our everyday lives.
Similarly, indigenous and mystical traditions have warned the West against conquistador exploration of ecstatic states for centuries. The Eastern Orthodox tradition, for instance, has a rich literature of prelest, a spiritual malaise in which the seeker of private mystical experiences becomes possessed, obsessed, deluded, or corrupted by egotism. It’s hard not to see a grain of truth in the old Christian warning against demons: a warning levied by various Iberian conquerors against peyote and ayahuasca centuries ago, and now being revived by religious communities alerted to the psychedelic trend.
Despite these warnings, there are growing communities of self-declared “psychonauts” heading deep into DMT space for hours before sharing their experiences on online messageboards. And people do often return from that space with entirely different metaphysical paradigms, with users convinced that the entities they saw were very Real. Yet in an era when the idea of evil has lost much of its cultural currency, it is curious that many report encountering entities that are exceptionally malicious — or, indeed, demonic. So wedded are we to the idea of Reason, we might laugh and pat the heads of these omens, or reduce them solely to psychic projections. But here we fall for a transhuman fallacy: that humans are in control of what’s real. No wonder: it’s easy to fall for that fallacy when you’re in an transcendent state, if it’s a state provoked by a drug humans made (and patented).
Part of the problem is the decline in “ecstatic literacy”: we just don’t know how to discuss or understand — or draw non-delusional conclusions — from “profane illumination”. While the proliferation of psychedelic products has changed the game by normalising such extraordinary experiences, we lack the language, the elders, the tradition that helps us make meaning of them.
Indeed, the ancient roots of psychedelic use, which might have guided their explosion, are in grave danger. In Peru, fully onboarded to the ayahuasca tourism trend, the influx of gringos has fuelled a rise in “pseudo-shamans” who adulterate their brews for extra kicks. Peyote and the bufo alvarius frog, whose venom contains the powerful compound 5-MeO-DMT, are now endangered, and the sustainability of ayahuasca reserves is now a “legitimate concern”. The price of ayahuasca has spiked as much as ten-fold. Where once its sale was fiercely guarded, it’s now touted in Coke bottles by impoverished rickshaw drivers who need extra cash.
The emergence of the psychedelic industrial complex only accelerated the up-rooting that globalisation has been enabling for decades. Filament Health, a firm whose USP is to use “natural psychedelics”, made headlines recently for its creation of “ayahuasca in a pill”: an absurd peak for an industry long-trained in extracting, stripping and distilling the fruits of the natural world. Anthropologists observe that the whole “healing” paradigm predominant in ayahuasca tourism in Peru is an exotic distortion, with “shaman” itself described as a “made-up, Western category”.
“Start your own religion,” Timothy Leary told his followers in the Sixties. Many tried, although their operations would swiftly descend into power-sustained cults. There recently came allegations of a similar cultishness emerging in a corner of Silicon Valley, at the Centre for Applied Rationality and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute; one of the problems cited was frequent drug-enhanced “debugging” rituals. This is further evidence that attempts to wrench the numinous from its roots, then commodify it, are archetypally foolish — or, in the unfashionable language of religion, sacriligeous. While attempts are being made to draw psychedelics into existing traditions like Judaism and Christianity, it’s not clear how these religions can guide us through the epistemic and personal challenges of still relatively little-researched drugs that spur such swift ascents.
Little in life is really reducible to Damascene moments, but a trip at its best can unlodge something: cause us to remember something we forgot. Yet rather than set us free, the release offered by the psychedelic state — in the absence of any real programme or tradition, or “container” in the current language — seems to dissipate without leaving a meaningful trace. Even those who do experience relief from depression through psychedelics, for instance, reliably relapse after a few months.
Perhaps it is worth heeding what acclaimed psychonaut Aldous Huxley said, while lying on his deathbed in November 1963. He requested a dose of 125 micrograms of LSD to ease his passage to the afterlife, and while it’s said that his passage was uniquely peaceful, his final words are telling: “It is never enough. Never enough. Never enough of beauty. Never enough of love. Never enough of life.”