The Demonization of Psychedelics With Daniel Pinchbeck
When I was a schoolboy, it was consistently drilled into me that if I were to experiment with the likes of Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25), I would risk certain madness and potentially do harm to myself and others.
I can vividly remember my whole class being ushered into a lecture hall every few years to sit for at least an hour being indoctrinated with anti-drug propaganda. Gruesome tales, such as the couple who had sex whilst on LSD. The male thought his partner had turned into a snake, and so ran to the kitchen, found the sharpest knife in the drawer and proceeded to stab his serpent bride to death. Flawed horror stories such as this were recited with no lack of gory detail, and for a time proved an effective abhorrent. But not for long. Daniel Pinchbeck has experimented with and written about psychedelics in abundance, although he likes to think of himself as more of an educator than an advocate. In his book Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, he describes in detail his adventures with various indigenous peoples and their holy plants in Africa, Mexico and South America, whilst unveiling the state of our self-medicated Western society. I caught up with Daniel in Manhattan, on the set of his new TV show Mind Shift — where he was interviewing a rather lively Russell Brand — to chat about his book and the demonization of perfectly good psychedelics.
Milk Made: Could you briefly describe the evolution of psychedelic drugs in our society?
Daniel Pinchbeck: Well, when psychedelics were rediscovered by the modern world in the 1940s and 1950s, they were considered the most amazing tools to understand the human mind/psyche psychiatrists had ever found, and they were also believed to be astonishingly safe. We discovered that tribal cultures and traditional civilizations around the world had been using these plants as sacraments for millennia.
In the 1960s when the same substances were linked to social uprising and consciousness change, they were demonized. The psychedelic movement was a phenomenon – it helped to liberate and de-condition people trapped in a repressive society. However we didn’t really know how to use these substances as tools yet, and sometimes they had negative effects. We were naive about them because we had lost our historical connection to them after the Middle Ages, when the Inquisition demonized anyone possessing visionary knowledge. Even someone as brilliant and sophisticated as John Lennon admitted that he took so much LSD, that it destroyed his ego and it took him years to get it back.
Today, we are in a very exciting period as there is a new psychedelic renaissance taking place, and we are integrating and learning from the mistakes of the past. Spiritual and sacramental use of visionary plants is growing, and we are seeing more and more amazing research into the value of psychedelics for healing and for personal growth. At the same time, we still have a vicious and inhuman War on Drugs that puts millions of nonviolent drug offenders into prisons each year – sometimes for many years, or even for life without parole.
MM: I expect it was important to the powers that be, that we did not lose our egos, in a world of growing materialism and commercialism.
DP: Exactly, and there was a movement by the youth away from consumerism and professionalization. At that time, Timothy Leary was considered the most dangerous man in America and his slogan was Turn on, tune in, drop out. The drop out part especially, as it referred to the abandonment of values once thought to be the backbone of society. Inner exploration, according to Leary, was far more important.
MM: In your book you write, "27 million Americans currently take antidepressants such as Zoloft or Prozac. These days most people are far more suspicious of plant compounds safely ingested by human beings for tens of thousands of years, than they are of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or other powerful, utterly synthetic, mood or mind altering drugs created in the last decades by a pharmacology industry motivated by profit."
DP: After the ’60s, the paradigm in mental health changed significantly. Once psychedelics were outlawed, the psychopharmacology industry developed drugs that would normalize people and, in a way, constrict the bandwidth of their consciousness and subjectivity. Because our society is sick, healthy people often react to it by becoming depressed or dysfunctional. Then they are given powerful psychoactive substances that make them able to function within it.
DP: Yes, and various drugs for recently created conditions, such as ADD. Even children are given these substances. However, it may well be that they are the healthy ones responding to a culture drenched in consumerism, violence and meaningless media.
MM: Years ago they would probably have been locked up!
DP: In the book Black Elk Speaks, when Black Elk [a Native American medicine man and holy man] was young, he was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. During this time, he has this incredible vision of the tree of life, through which he learned a lot that would help his people. When he recovered he became a healer and a shaman, and the people forever took his visions very seriously. In our culture, someone who is having visions would be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and be placed in a mental home.
MM: Psychedelics are also non-addictive, compared to these highly addictive medications the drug companies like to distribute.
DP: They are not only non-addictive but even anti-addictive. Several heroin users I know of have got clean by using substances such as Iboga. Even peyote, in the Native American church, is used to treat alcoholism. The NAC is a peyote religion that developed in North America. A number of years ago the Supreme Court tried to take away the Indians’ right to use peyote in these ceremonies, but congress was pressured to issue a religious freedoms proclamation act, which has allowed the church to continue with its practices.
MM: Tell me a little about Iboga.
DP: I’ve done Iboga twice, once in Africa, in Gabon with the Bwiti [a local tribe], and once in Mexico. It’s very difficult to describe. My friend Steven who kicked heroin with Iboga said that it was God’s way of telling you, "YOU’RE MINE, BITCH." It lasts for 15-20 hours and is very intense.
MM: Compared to ayahuasca?
DP: Ayahuasca is very frilly and fluffy compared to Iboga.
[to the waiter] Could I have some sugar please.
DP: That’s funny you mention sugar because that is the most addictive substance of all!
MM: I’m ashamed to say, I’m a sugar fiend.
Going back to the title, "Demonization." It certainly seems to me that there is a strong motivation in government and education, to stamp out the use of psychedelics. Scare tactics seem to be present in schools. Potential madness is a scary thing.
DP: I really haven’t heard of anybody going bonkers from an ayahuasca or peyote trip, but LSD is a bit trickier. There are cases where people have psychological complexes that may have been hidden, and taking LSD brings them to the surface, leading to a bad experience that can have long-term consequences. Drug use requires discernment and adult sophistication. Each person has to make their own personal decision whether it is valuable to them to have the experience, or if there is a danger due to some hereditary condition or some psychological complex that may cause harm. For these reasons I try to be really conscientious about this subject. I don’t like to think of myself as an advocate, although these substances have had tremendous significance for me, and my experiences on them have been profound.
MM: I had a particularly intense psychedelic experience, after which i think a lot of my "Ego" evaporated. It became very clear to me that I was on the wrong path. Without that experience, who knows where I’d be. For that reason I am pro-moderate use of psychedelics. It also got me much more in touch with the planet and caring about my impact on it.
DP: In my book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, I argue that humanity is undergoing a shift in consciousness, an evolutionary process that is carefully timed. Despite the title of the book, I didn’t anticipate we would suddenly change by a particular date. I saw this process as something ongoing and evolving. In fact, my book is just as relevant today as when I wrote it. On a global level, our civilization is facing a deadline, a cul de sac. If you look at the environmental crisis, we now know that 25 percent of all species are in danger of becoming extinct in 30 years. The oceans have become 30 percent more acidic in the last 40 years as they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and coral reefs are disintegrating. As we punish our environment, we are seeing more industrial catastrophes, like Fukushima, which threaten our future survival. Climate change is accelerating, leading to massive floods, super storms and ocean levels rising. We must shift from an individual Ego-driven culture to a cooperative society, based on a collective and caring consciousness, if we want to survive as a species. I am excited that this transformation is something we are likely to experience in our lifetimes, as the global awakening spreads through our new communications infrastructure.
MM: My good friends Rob and Tristan recently made a great film about just that, Revolution, which I would encourage everybody to watch. There is so much mis-information in our midst, that it’s great when a film like this really outlines the problem and separates fact from fiction. Are you familiar with Amanda Feilding-Mellen and the Beckley Foundation?
DP: Yes, I do know Amanda and am a great supporter of the work she does with her foundation, which is bringing cutting-edge science about psychoactive substances into the political debate.
MM It seems to me as though the powers that be are neglecting a lot of research that could be done into drugs and how they can be used to advance us as a species, as well as help have fun along the way.
DP: I was actually at the Psychedelic Science Conference in May, which the Beckley Foundation sponsored, along with MAPS. It was an amazing experience! For the last four decades, research on psychedelics with human subjects was forbidden. Now it is flourishing. One of the most important studies seeks to use MDMA to treat Post Traumatic Stress disorder in situations of sexual abuse, as well as in veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Nothing had worked for these patients up until now, and they had an 80 percent success rate by administering MDMA three times. A year after the treatment, they remained free of any symptoms of PTSD.
At NYU, a study into psilocybin [magic mushrooms] is underway. They are giving it to terminally ill cancer patients to see if it changes their attitude toward the dying process. It seems to be having a really positive effect, as patients no longer see themselves as victims. I would love to see a revival of research into psychedelics to advance creativity in the arts and sciences! There was a study in the early ’60s in California, giving LSD to engineers who were working on problems. It had tremendously positive results. Because LSD was illegalized, the study was never allowed to be replicated.
MM: I have often heard of moments of creative genius occurring whilst under the influence of drugs such as LSD and Ketamine.
DP: Steve Jobs claimed psychedelic trips were the most important experiences of his life. The biologist Kary Mullis credited LSD with helping him discover polymer chain reactions, which won him a Nobel Prize. Obviously, psychedelics had a pretty good effect on the Beatles, Hendrix, and the Stones. When enough of our cultural influencers start to talk about this more publicly, it will accelerate the speed at which psychedelics reach public acceptance. Actually, some people may not want to discuss the value of psychedelics, as they wouldn’t necessarily want everyone to have the same competitive advantage.
MM: Thank god for the Internet.
DP: Exactly. The more powerful that our technologies get, the more crucial it is that people understand the content and deep structure of the psyche. Jung spoke about this as “integrating the Shadow.” The Shadow represents the hidden and suppressed aspects of our psychology. One powerful, quick, and effective way to do this is psychedelics. It has been suggested that, before someone runs for public office, they should do at least 10 ayahuasca sessions, to get to know themselves a bit. If you don’t know your inner demons and complexes, you tend to project them. There’s a classic photo from the 1950s of three technicians who had just built the MX missile. They are holding a big model of their phallic missile overhead, grinning ear to ear. The missile is obviously an extension of their penis, and out of sex frustration, they are using it to destroy other countries. Recognizing that we have a tendency toward psychological projection is important.
MM: Before we end I would like to talk to ask you about DMT. Many people have different ideas about this frankly rather rare and enigmatic substance.
DP: Dimethyltryptamine. There are a couple of varieties of it. There is N,N-DMT, and 5-MeO-DMT. They both seem to be naturally occurring chemicals that are found in our brains and spinal chord.
MM: The Pineal Gland?
DP: Theoretically. DMT is also produced by many species of plants, although we don’t know why. The Bufo toad releases bufotenine, a close corollary of DMT, and these toads were represented in much Mesoamerican art. When you smoke N,-DMT, you have the most powerful visionary experience that you can imagine. It is really like the entire world or consensual reality disappears and you find yourself in another dimension. 5-MeO-DMT is actually more powerful – the most overwhelming experience one can imagine – as you feel that you temporarily merge with the mind of God, experiencing infinity and eternity. Sometimes there are visuals, similar to that of the patterns found in Islamic art, but the main experience is one of merging, surrendering and utterly dissolving into the Divine.
MM: It was almost like a religious experience when i tried it. No other psychedelic experience compared to it. It became obvious that we are not alone in this universe..
DP: What I learned from DMT and ayahuasca was that there are many other dimensions of consciousness that exist beyond what our normal senses reveal. The ultimate nature of reality is beyond conceptual understanding. There is no way to represent what you experience on DMT, as it is somehow hyper-dimensional and possesses forms and colors that we cannot experience in 3-D.
Based on his experience of DMT and psilocybin, the visionary thinker Terence McKenna proposes that the universe is ultimately made of language. Other visionaries have proposed that the imagination is not just a state, but the human existence, in itself. The DMT trip suggests these types of interpretations. It shouldn’t be taken lightly!
MM: Good advice, Daniel. Thanks for talking with us. I look forward to our next chat.
DP: Thank you.