PSYCHEDELIC EXPERIENCES IN A RATIONAL SPIRITUAL CONTEXT
© Ian Lawton 2005
[This is the text of a lecture delivered at the Questing Conference in London on 5 November 2005.]
My aim today is to analyse psychedelic experiences using the same criteria that I apply to the evidence for Rational Spirituality. So we will examine three key questions in turn: First, how consistent are they? Second, to what extent are they independently corroborated, especially in terms of producing verifiable, even revelatory information? And third, to what extent do they produce profound spiritual insights, or other therapeutic benefits?
The Different Types of Psychedelic Experience
We all know that most genuine psychedelics consistently produce initial visions of geometric shapes, and associated harmonic sounds, that appear to represent glimpses of the true essence of the ‘unseen universe’, accompanied by a deep and insightful appreciation of its vastness, connectedness and unity. This is an incredibly powerful and important experience that is sufficiently consistent with transcendental visions occurring either spontaneously or in meditation, as well as with various aspects of modern scientific research, that there seems to be little doubt that it has a genuine and highly significant meaning and objectivity. (And incidentally, to clarify an important point, I should emphasise that this experience of unity does not contradict the idea of individual soul reincarnation. Rational Spirituality is predicated on a fundamental duality that our human souls are both individual entities on a reincarnatory journey, and holographic representations of the Ultimate Source or Unity, all at the same time.)
In any case, there is also a degree of consistency in that psychedelic experiences then tend to involve ‘breaking through the veil’, and moving into non-terrestrial vistas, which are often although not always populated by non-terrestrial life forms.
In a tribal shamanic context, these tend to include animal or plant forms, or animal-human hybrids. Such visions are commonly found in, for example, Palaeolithic rock art, and in ancient Egyptian depictions of their gods. These seem to have a close parallel to the elementals and nature spirits whose existence has been discussed for centuries, and is also corroborated by interlife regression subjects. But note that the specific forms encountered do vary considerably, especially from tribe to tribe and even from individual to individual. Our best guess must surely be that these are intermediate-realm rather than light-realm entities who are in their various ways responsible for guarding our planet’s animal, vegetable and mineral forms. And as such we would expect there to be an enormous variety of them.
If we turn now to more non-shamanic, western experiences, we find the non-terrestrial beings encountered are often quite different, and tend to fall into three major categories, albeit that there is significant overlap. The first is that of so-called ‘clowns’, and in some contexts at least these seem to represent the archetype of the ‘fool’. This type of psychedelic experience can perhaps be best compared to the dream state, and arguably seems to primarily involve personal psychological phenomena. The second type is that of ‘elves’, popularised by Terence McKenna, and one obvious, although by no means exclusive, interpretation is that in some contexts they may again represent elemental or nature spirits in a form that has been reported at least in European culture for centuries. To that extent the experience would again be confined to the intermediate rather than light realms. However there may be other explanations for these experiences, inasmuch as they overlap with the third category of beings, which is that of extraterrestrial-type ‘greys’ or even ‘reptilians’. The similarity of these type of psychedelic experiences with that of alien abductions is self-evident, and strengthened by the fact that probing and examination are often also involved. Another similarity is the variation in the general ambience, so that the beings may seem somewhat aloof and disinterested, or more actively benign, or even actively threatening.
Now it seems to me that we have little option but to acknowledge that, once we reach beyond the veil especially in this non-shamanic context, far from incredible consistency there are in fact significant variations in psychedelic experiences. And the following factors seem to suggest that cultural conditioning might play a significant role in subjectivising them. First, the most consistent experiences occur within the relatively strict cultural conditioning of the tribal shamanic context. Second, animal, plant and animal-human hybrid entities do not tend to figure heavily outside of this context. Instead we tend to have more traditional elf-type figures, or the exclusively modern phenomenon of alien beings, both of which are widely disseminated cultural memes. And third, the reactions of psychedelic journeyers to these beings are extremely varied, and heavily dependent on their background and emotional state at the time, as well as on the setting in which the experience takes place.
Comparison with the Interlife Experience
Such subjectivity is also encountered in interlife regression. Here the light realms and their inhabitants are seen by more experienced souls as purely energy-based, while less experienced souls tend to project quasi-physical form onto their surroundings to make them feel more comfortable, especially on their initial reorientation. We also find that a small number of regression – and for that matter near-death – subjects report ‘hellish’ or at least unpleasant experiences, but these are always revealed as mere temporary projections of the subjects’ own expectations. However, the major difference between interlife and psychedelic experiences is the underlying continuity of context. As I have already described, in the interlife subjects engage in a number of consistent activities irrespective of the detailed surroundings they perceive. At least once they move beyond the veil in a non-shamanic setting, psychedelic experiences, by contrast, appear to have no equivalent or consistent context.
Obscure and Verifiable Information in Psychedelic Experiences
The evidence for this falls into two main categories. First, as Jeremy Narby and others have done so well to bring to our attention, tribal shamans are able to mix substances from two or more plant sources to provide startlingly efficient remedies for a variety of health complaints. The statistical likelihood of them being able to achieve this so consistently, purely by chance or repeated trial and error, is so small as to be negligible. So we should take their own reports that they gain this knowledge from the entities they meet in shamanic trance seriously. There seems to be little doubt that over many centuries they have learnt to establish proper constructive communications with the elementals and nature spirits that inhabit the intermediate plane, and this in itself is a superb achievement. But we should still place it in its proper context. It would appear to be confined to communication with the intermediate realms only, and does not appear to extend to obtaining more general or universal information from the light realms.
Second, we now know that a number of important scientific discoveries of modern times have been facilitated by psychedelics. One revelation is that Frances Crick was on an LSD trip when he first formulated the existence of DNA. But surely we must ask, in this and other cases, was he really accessing some sort of databank of universal knowledge, or did his existing thought processes and research merely receive a vital catalytic boost from his altered state of consciousness? Certainly the latter seems to be how he and many of his academic colleagues viewed their use of the drug. But what if we could show that more ordinary people with no related research interests were able to bring back incredible secrets from their psychedelic journeys? A number of research and other subjects do indeed report that they feel they have received incredible insights, of a far more detailed nature than their general initial experience of the unity of the unseen universe; but most seem unfortunately unable to bring such knowledge back with them into the physical plane, and if they do it seems to be primarily personal data. Of course some astounding claims have also been made by alien abductees, but as far as I am aware none of these has provided any sort of conclusive proof of tapping into an external, nonphysical source of knowledge as yet.
Now, I have no wish to be a killjoy, and I am as disappointed as anyone about this apparent lack of objective, verifiable results. But in the interests of our own objectivity it is important to report that this failure is corroborated by an important piece of research that has not been widely disseminated as yet. John Kent, the publisher of Trip Magazine and author of a soon-to-be published book called Psychedelic Information Theory, has deliberately experimented with psychedelics and other altered states of consciousness for nearly two decades. In particular he has repeatedly taken DMT, which is attractive to researchers because of its powerful but short-lived effects, and unlike most newcomers to it – even those who are well versed in other psychedelics – he gradually found that he could largely control the experience. This is how he described it in a "brief summary:
The more I experimented with DMT the more I found that the 'elves' were merely machinations of my own mind. While under the influence I found I could think them into existence, and then think them right out of existence simply by willing it so. Sometimes I could not produce elves, and my mind would wander through all sorts of magnificent and amazing creations, but the times that I did see elves I tried very hard to press them into giving up some non-transient feature that would confirm at least a rudimentary 'autonomous existence' beyond my own imagination. Of course, I could not. Whenever I tried to pull any information out of the entities regarding themselves, the data that was given up was always relevant only to me. The elves could not give me any piece of data I did not already know, nor could their existence be sustained under any kind of prolonged scrutiny. Like a dream, once you realize you are dreaming you are actually slipping into wakefulness and the dream fades. So it is with the elves as well. When you try to shine a light of reason on them they dissolve like shadows.
I would argue that there is a hugely important general lesson to be derived from Kent’s research. It is something akin to the way we used to be naïve enough to think that any channelled communication must be genuine, but now realise that there are plenty of cosmic jokers out there. And it is that we should stop assuming that, every time an apparently visionary researcher has one or two psychedelic experiences, they have truly unlocked all the secrets of the universe. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that unless you have tried psychedelics at least once you cannot possibly know what the experience is really like. But it is also fair to make this additional analogy. Would you trust a driving instructor who had only driven a car a couple of times? Or would you insist that they should have covered a good few thousand miles before trying to teach you about it?
The Potential Therapeutic Qualities of Psychedelics
Early studies into the use of LSD, where pioneering psychologists experimented with its use as a treatment for psychotic and schizophrenic disorders, seemed to hold the promise of much more to come in terms of personal insights and therapeutic benefits. Devastatingly, these were largely put on hold by the adverse reaction to sixties counter-culture and the draconian prohibition laws that ensued.
But in the early nineties at least one researcher held out high hopes of reigniting the flame of both psychopharmacology and transpersonal psychology. Rick Strassman obtained government permission to use DMT with sixty subjects at the University of New Mexico, and while his subjects were deliberately picked for their apparent mental stability so that therapeutic benefits might be negligible, he at least had high hopes that it would prove to be an incredible source of spiritual insights. But in his recent book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, he is unfortunately forced to admit that his research was really rather unsuccessful in this respect.
He was disappointed to find that only three of his subjects had what he classified as transpersonal, or in our terms arguably light or ‘upper realm’, experiences, and even then none of these three achieved any significant insights. And in his follow-up he was similarly disappointed to find that none of his sixty subjects seemed to have had a sufficiently dramatic experience, whatever their feelings at the time, that it benefited them in any long-term or conclusively spiritual way. (We should of course bear in mind that all his subjects had at least some previous psychedelic experience, so they had already derived the benefit of experiencing the initial feeling of unity.) In fact he was so disappointed that he planned to conduct further research with other psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin, but this never came to fruition.
Now I admire Strassman’s motives and tenacity enormously, but again we must take the evidence as it is rather than as we would like it to be. And I cannot help but point out that his DMT results are in stark contrast to the profound impact of the near-death or interlife experience of the light realms.
But in fact all is not lost! Because there is one particular psychedelic that stands out from all the others, at least in a few important particulars, and that is iboga, or its synthesised derivative ibogaine. I first became aware of this substance back in January, when BBC2 screened an excellent documentary series entitled ‘Tribe’. One particular episode recounted anthropological explorer Bruce Parry's experiences of living for a month with the Babongo people of Gabon. Parry and the tribal elders agreed that he should be initiated into their culture in a shamanic ceremony that lasted for several days, and required him to ingest considerable quantities of paste derived from the roots of a plant called tabernanthe iboga.
Parry's film crew were forbidden by the tribal elders from filming the deeper elements of his initiation. However, after we had been treated to the ‘money shots’ of him vomiting copiously as the drug started to take effect, and during a break after the first part of his initiation, he explained that he had seen his life so far with panoramic clarity. He also recalled that he had been transported back in time to specific situations in which he had caused hurt or offence to others, and had experienced them vividly. In particular he emphasised that he had effectively swapped places with these other people, and thereby become acutely aware of the effects of his actions on them. One example he gave was of the pain of a former partner he had jilted - hardly the vilest of crimes, and something we have probably all done at least once in our lives. But clearly his subconscious, or ‘higher self’, was keen for him to experience the effects of his actions at first hand. And although he reported that he had some feelings of guilt, he was equally imbued with a deep-seated understanding and awareness, and with a desire to at least let that particular person know that he now had a far better idea of what he had put them through.
You can imagine how fascinated I was by this revelation. Here was Parry describing exactly the same ‘life-review’ experience as that of near-death and interlife regression subjects. Nor did it appear to be a one-off, because he was pre-warned about it precisely because it is a universally recognised aspect of the iboga experience. Even more revelatory was the corollary with the fact that regression subjects regularly describe the same experience of feeling the emotions of others they have wronged in some way or another - often in incidents that are long forgotten, and which seemed innocuous enough at the time. Here are the descriptions of two pioneering interlife researchers, the first from Life Between Life by Joel Whitton:
While incarnate, one’s negative actions can be rationalized and repressed; there are always plenty of excuses available. In the interlife the emotions generated by these actions emerge raw and irreconcilable. Any emotional suffering that was inflicted on others is felt as keenly as if it were inflicted on oneself.
The second is from Remarkable Healings by Shakuntala Modi:
During the review, patients not only assess every good and bad thing they did, but also experience other people’s feelings. In heaven, patients describe themselves as nonphysical spirits. There are no barriers of time and space. Patients can return to any moment in the lifetime they just departed and observe the events from different points of view.
And nor is this evidence for the role-swapping element of the life review confined to the field of interlife regression. It is also reported by near-death experience researchers. For example, Peter Fenwick has this to say in The Truth in the Light:
In the 'classical' life review the person is shown his or her whole life in a panoramic fashion. Although actions which have been carried out are often seen as shabby and self-interested, the person does not feel judged; guilt is made more tolerable by the supportive quality of the surrounding light of love. Often the person experiences himself the emotional or physical pain that he has caused to others. Usually he is left with a feeling that he has learned from this and a determination to change and do better.
On further investigation I found a lengthy and informative article about ibogaine on the internet, written by investigative journalist Simon Witter, which seemed to confirm that the life-review experience was consistently present even for people taking it outside of a tribal shamanic setting. And clearly there are extremely close parallels between the past-life review element of the interlife or near-death experience, and its equivalent when taking iboga. In all these contexts it seems to have a profound impact on the subject, acting as an incredible tool for self-analysis and learning. But crucially, in my research so far I have been unable to trace any significant accounts of similar experiences occurring with other psychedelics such as ayahuasca, peyote, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, LSD and so on.
But the real, although related, reason that iboga is dubbed ‘the wonder drug’ is its further potential as a serious therapeutic tool. Long ago it was found that it had the rather ironic potential to cure serious drug addictions, and pioneering researchers like Howard Lotsof and Eric Taub insisted that it was the most effective substance they had ever come across as a psychotherapeutic tool. As an example Sarah Emanon, one of Taub’s assistants, reported the following ibogaine-derived success with her quest to understand her lifelong feelings of isolation (as quoted in Witter's paper):
I went back to being with my adopted mother as an infant while she was holding me. My head was bobbing, and my nose was banging into her neck - I could feel it physically. I can still feel it - it is such an interesting sensation. Then I smelled her, and it didn’t feel right. I can still remember that reaction. I didn't want to be near her. I was trying to get away because it didn't smell right. For me, this was the beginning of owning my own process rather than projecting it onto others. I had had years and years of therapy, but I had never gotten to that piece. And I found myself witnessing that I had never bonded to that mother. And for the first time, I really experienced that lack of bonding, and why it never occurred: she didn't smell right, and there was no connection.
This type of catharsis is also regularly obtained through regression therapy, and the mounting parallels are self-evident. A number of research studies into ibogaine are ongoing, both in Europe and elsewhere, but its widespread use and availability still seems to be a long way off, not least for the usual political reasons. But even so, we must ask whether ibogaine really has the potential to make a breakthrough into more than just personal therapy and insights. Is it the panacea for unlocking hidden knowledge and wisdom that spiritual seekers have for so long coveted? Unfortunately most modern research is not targeted towards more universal aspects of the iboga experience, although there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that further research in this area will prove rewarding. Only time will tell.
To sum up then, in general psychedelics produce two important, relatively consistent and independently corroborated results. First, initial glimpses of the true nature of the universe and of its essential unity, which are corroborated by both meditative and spontaneous transcendental illumination, and by modern science. To this extent it appears that they can act as a supreme catalyst for opening the eyes of those who struggle to obtain this experience by more traditional meditative practices. Second, at least in a tribal shamanic context, they can engender communications with nature spirits and elementals that produce obscure and specific information about natural cures for a variety of ailments.
Nevertheless, despite the undoubted importance of both of these findings, it seems to be crucial that we also appreciate that in general psychedelic experiences may not represent a panacea that can reveal all the mysteries of the universe to us. It appears that they are primarily confined to the intermediate rather than light realms, and can also involve large elements of subjective perception and personal psychic projection, which is why they contain such variations in theme. For this reason it would seem to be unwise to imbue their more disparate elements with too much significance, or to take them too literally. The exception to this is, of course, the iboga experience, which appears to consistently enhance self-knowledge as well as producing other therapeutic benefits, all of which closely mirrors the effects of regression and near-death experiences.
[Note that after the conference I had a discussion with Jeremy Narby, anthropologist and renowned author of The Cosmic Serpent, in which he suggested that the naturally-occurring psychedelics such as ayahuasca, peyote and magic mushrooms seem to provide a far more profound experience - perhaps especially if taken in a tribal shamanic setting - than their synthesised derivatives such as DMT, LSD, mescaline and so on. And this is despite there being only very small differences in the chemical structure of the basic molecules. He is far more experienced than I in these matters, and I think this is a suggestion that deserves further consideration.]