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Is the psychedelic industrial complex evil? Ecstatic states have lost their mystical roots


January 25, 2023   6 mins

“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.”


Ed Prideaux is a freelance journalist and MSc Psychology student.

EdPrideaux

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Albireo Double
Albireo Double
1 year ago

I’ve had diagnosed severe PTSD, and the cure was psychiatric treatment which was entirely and permanently successful. I’ve also had addiction problems, for which the cure was abstinence, and was also entirely and permanently successful.

However these cures are not glamorous or exciting, and take a little effort and hard work. Drugs are easy and superficially glamorous and exciting.

The lesson which needs to be learned is that you can’t get much happiness from outside yourself. If you want contentment, you need to find it from within. Sorry that’s a bit boring – but it just happens to be true.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 year ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Excellent post. Well done for overcoming such problems.

Veronica Lowe
Veronica Lowe
1 year ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Thank you for this clear reason not to take drugs. A relative of mine had severe mental problems after cannabis and bad trips. Ultimately he had far too much ECT, and a brilliant brain has been ruined.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 year ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Excellent post. Well done for overcoming such problems.

Veronica Lowe
Veronica Lowe
1 year ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Thank you for this clear reason not to take drugs. A relative of mine had severe mental problems after cannabis and bad trips. Ultimately he had far too much ECT, and a brilliant brain has been ruined.

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
1 year ago

I’ve had diagnosed severe PTSD, and the cure was psychiatric treatment which was entirely and permanently successful. I’ve also had addiction problems, for which the cure was abstinence, and was also entirely and permanently successful.

However these cures are not glamorous or exciting, and take a little effort and hard work. Drugs are easy and superficially glamorous and exciting.

The lesson which needs to be learned is that you can’t get much happiness from outside yourself. If you want contentment, you need to find it from within. Sorry that’s a bit boring – but it just happens to be true.

Pil Grim
Pil Grim
1 year ago

A wise article. 15-20 years ago the future looked very bright for psychedelic research, and it is clear that some substances will almost certainly be useful for depression (even though there are relapses), but I can’t help but feel the author does point out a series of important negative trends: the commercialisation, the cult like behaviour, and the utter credulity and naĂŻvetĂ© of those selling the message as a cure all. These substances never functioned in a vacuum. They were always part of living religious traditions and were generally used sparingly in order to help with specific problems such as finding lost items and healing illnesses. They were also deployed in a setting which involved a huge amount of ritual which inculcated a deep sense of protection. Our use today has stripped most of this away and is presided over by people who have inadequate maps of the spaces the substances can propel you into. What could go wrong? Everything.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Pil Grim

There are always dark sides to every innovation. That doesn’t mean the good has to be tossed out with the bad. There are many positive outcomes being demonstrated from controlled, professionally administered psychedelics, and there will also be quacks, who are seeking a quick buck illegally. There is a black market for just about every item you can think of, but it doesn’t mean they should all be demonized.

Pil Grim
Pil Grim
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Oh I’m not demonising them – I think they can have profound uses in the right context. It’s just the general context they are being used in now is for the most part inappropriate. These substances are a door that has been mistaken for a cure-all. The hard work only starts once you walk through.

Pil Grim
Pil Grim
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Oh I’m not demonising them – I think they can have profound uses in the right context. It’s just the general context they are being used in now is for the most part inappropriate. These substances are a door that has been mistaken for a cure-all. The hard work only starts once you walk through.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Pil Grim

There are always dark sides to every innovation. That doesn’t mean the good has to be tossed out with the bad. There are many positive outcomes being demonstrated from controlled, professionally administered psychedelics, and there will also be quacks, who are seeking a quick buck illegally. There is a black market for just about every item you can think of, but it doesn’t mean they should all be demonized.

Pil Grim
Pil Grim
1 year ago

A wise article. 15-20 years ago the future looked very bright for psychedelic research, and it is clear that some substances will almost certainly be useful for depression (even though there are relapses), but I can’t help but feel the author does point out a series of important negative trends: the commercialisation, the cult like behaviour, and the utter credulity and naĂŻvetĂ© of those selling the message as a cure all. These substances never functioned in a vacuum. They were always part of living religious traditions and were generally used sparingly in order to help with specific problems such as finding lost items and healing illnesses. They were also deployed in a setting which involved a huge amount of ritual which inculcated a deep sense of protection. Our use today has stripped most of this away and is presided over by people who have inadequate maps of the spaces the substances can propel you into. What could go wrong? Everything.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

“There are dangers in viewing our search for God as a technical problem — one that can be solved through human ingenuity.” Therein lies the crux of the problem, which the author has elucidated brilliantly. As a psychiatrist with more than 20 years of experience, I am increasingly convinced that what we have is a spiritual–or even religious–crisis rather than a “mental health crisis.” And while ketamine and psychedelics may play some role in treating severe psychiatric illness, the malaise that besets our culture will go on until we are prepared to do the hard work of real spiritual growth and, dare I say, connection to God.
–Dr. Julie Curwin
(I am posting under my husband’s profile)

Last edited 1 year ago by Chris Milburn
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Milburn

I would argue that the spiritual crisis we’re experiencing is, at least in part, due to the “easy” option which the vast majority of people accepted in being part of one religious group or another, with their god at the centre. Once that conceptual framework became increasingly questioned and belief in a non-existent god started to fail, the crisis began. The answer, in my opinion, simply cannot be a return to a belief in a non-existent god.
We humans certainly need to work through some issues with our own humanity, but let’s be brave about it rather than outsourcing the answers.

Margaret Donaldson
Margaret Donaldson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The biggest issue is that we have been brainwashed into believing that we are the measure of all things. Realising and then knowing in your heart that you are not is ‘sickening’. Quite how anybody can believe that we are greater and can know more than the power behind our universe is beyond me. I’ll stick to believing in God. Non-existent indeed! That argument is completely old hat.

Margaret Donaldson
Margaret Donaldson
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The biggest issue is that we have been brainwashed into believing that we are the measure of all things. Realising and then knowing in your heart that you are not is ‘sickening’. Quite how anybody can believe that we are greater and can know more than the power behind our universe is beyond me. I’ll stick to believing in God. Non-existent indeed! That argument is completely old hat.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Milburn

I would argue that the spiritual crisis we’re experiencing is, at least in part, due to the “easy” option which the vast majority of people accepted in being part of one religious group or another, with their god at the centre. Once that conceptual framework became increasingly questioned and belief in a non-existent god started to fail, the crisis began. The answer, in my opinion, simply cannot be a return to a belief in a non-existent god.
We humans certainly need to work through some issues with our own humanity, but let’s be brave about it rather than outsourcing the answers.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

“There are dangers in viewing our search for God as a technical problem — one that can be solved through human ingenuity.” Therein lies the crux of the problem, which the author has elucidated brilliantly. As a psychiatrist with more than 20 years of experience, I am increasingly convinced that what we have is a spiritual–or even religious–crisis rather than a “mental health crisis.” And while ketamine and psychedelics may play some role in treating severe psychiatric illness, the malaise that besets our culture will go on until we are prepared to do the hard work of real spiritual growth and, dare I say, connection to God.
–Dr. Julie Curwin
(I am posting under my husband’s profile)

Last edited 1 year ago by Chris Milburn
AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

Religions typically provided a framework for finding the numinous, but modern religions have (mostly) retreated from this aim. In the UK most churches are locked outside the times of service, so good luck trying to find an official place for contemplation.
But some people still seek a transcendent experience and a whole industry has sprung up to provide those experiences… and some experiences ‘deliver’ what religion generally can’t. Other experiences are dangerous or a rip-off.
If you look for something hard enough you will find it – whether it exists or not.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

Religions typically provided a framework for finding the numinous, but modern religions have (mostly) retreated from this aim. In the UK most churches are locked outside the times of service, so good luck trying to find an official place for contemplation.
But some people still seek a transcendent experience and a whole industry has sprung up to provide those experiences… and some experiences ‘deliver’ what religion generally can’t. Other experiences are dangerous or a rip-off.
If you look for something hard enough you will find it – whether it exists or not.

mike otter
mike otter
1 year ago

All good clean fun as long as there’s at last one sober person around. Therapeutic uses are fraught with issues as some get tipped into permanent mental crisis – i have seen 5 “windowpanes” (ÎŒg content unknown) send a guy to hospital for a year & 5g dried Golden Teacher is called a “hero trip” for good reason. So much for the psychonauts – somebody once said such drugs are “the spiritualists form of gambilng”. My concern is people daft enough to fall for quack therapies might think their trips are reality and act on them: Consider the common visions: DMT- aliens, space travel in the post Dan Dare-Roswell generations. LSD – people + objects made of plastic. Astral travel & weird human and animal faces seem common to most drugs if you take enough. As i say fun for many BUT don’t drive, operate machinery, a royal title or a political career whilst out of your gourd.

mike otter
mike otter
1 year ago

All good clean fun as long as there’s at last one sober person around. Therapeutic uses are fraught with issues as some get tipped into permanent mental crisis – i have seen 5 “windowpanes” (ÎŒg content unknown) send a guy to hospital for a year & 5g dried Golden Teacher is called a “hero trip” for good reason. So much for the psychonauts – somebody once said such drugs are “the spiritualists form of gambilng”. My concern is people daft enough to fall for quack therapies might think their trips are reality and act on them: Consider the common visions: DMT- aliens, space travel in the post Dan Dare-Roswell generations. LSD – people + objects made of plastic. Astral travel & weird human and animal faces seem common to most drugs if you take enough. As i say fun for many BUT don’t drive, operate machinery, a royal title or a political career whilst out of your gourd.

Nanda Kishor das
Nanda Kishor das
1 year ago

Brilliant! And very scary. We need to go back to the Old Faiths, there’s no other way out of this transhuman mess.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nanda Kishor das
Nanda Kishor das
Nanda Kishor das
1 year ago

Brilliant! And very scary. We need to go back to the Old Faiths, there’s no other way out of this transhuman mess.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nanda Kishor das
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 year ago

Perhaps we should look at what Buddhism and Daosim can teach us where there is rigorous training of the mind and body through meditation and exercise.
This Shaolin Master Changed My Life – YouTube
Shi Heng Yi – Full Interview with the Mulligan Brothers – Bing video

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 year ago

Perhaps we should look at what Buddhism and Daosim can teach us where there is rigorous training of the mind and body through meditation and exercise.
This Shaolin Master Changed My Life – YouTube
Shi Heng Yi – Full Interview with the Mulligan Brothers – Bing video

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
1 year ago

i think it’d be very hard to handle psychedelics in a religion like Judaism or Christianity. They are not esoteric, ‘initiatic’ groupings, they are exoteric, mainstream religions.
People are born into these faiths and they don’t sign on for that kind of ‘experience’. You don’t have an intimate, one-to-one relationship with a teacher.
While they do have ceremonial, these are far away from the type of rituals that would be suited to managing people who are ingesting consciousness-altering substances.
Even within the ‘mainstream’ of esoteric groups, ie, Masonic, ‘occult fringe’ or ‘New Age’ groups, drug use is not that common. Many ban it outright.
It’s a commonplace within these groups that drugs cause problems. The fallout from unwise experimenting, has even led to the collapse of some groups.

Last edited 1 year ago by Dumetrius
Dumetrius
Dumetrius
1 year ago

i think it’d be very hard to handle psychedelics in a religion like Judaism or Christianity. They are not esoteric, ‘initiatic’ groupings, they are exoteric, mainstream religions.
People are born into these faiths and they don’t sign on for that kind of ‘experience’. You don’t have an intimate, one-to-one relationship with a teacher.
While they do have ceremonial, these are far away from the type of rituals that would be suited to managing people who are ingesting consciousness-altering substances.
Even within the ‘mainstream’ of esoteric groups, ie, Masonic, ‘occult fringe’ or ‘New Age’ groups, drug use is not that common. Many ban it outright.
It’s a commonplace within these groups that drugs cause problems. The fallout from unwise experimenting, has even led to the collapse of some groups.

Last edited 1 year ago by Dumetrius
Richard Russell
Richard Russell
5 months ago

Really like the part about the decline (or almost complete loss) of “ecstatic literacy”. So sadly typical in this age of profound ignorance

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
1 year ago

It’s too early still to tell whether the current medical interest in psychedelics will find anything of lasting value, but I don’t like this author’s valorization of ignorant shamanism over scientific analysis. It’s too much like the religious argument against HPV vaccine, that fear of terminal cancer is required to keep young girls chaste.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
1 year ago

It’s too early still to tell whether the current medical interest in psychedelics will find anything of lasting value, but I don’t like this author’s valorization of ignorant shamanism over scientific analysis. It’s too much like the religious argument against HPV vaccine, that fear of terminal cancer is required to keep young girls chaste.