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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Special Ones

I enjoy reading Casey Hardison's occasional articles for Erowid in his section 'Metanoia - Diet for a Drugged Planet'. Casey's writing style is articulate, witty, and lively, the content of his pieces honest, heartfelt, thought-provoking, and gently provocative. Not that I agree with everything he writes. I don't agree with anybody on everything. I don't agree with myself quite frequently, if truth be told.....

His contribution of November 27th, 2014 ('If a plant told you to jump off a cliff, would you?') contains observations and reflections following his attendance at the World Ayahuasca Conference held in Ibiza during September 2014. In case anybody is unfamiliar with ayahuasca, it is a potent psychedelic-type plant brew associated predominantly with the Amazon Basin. It is composed of two or more different plants, which are boiled and combined into a brew that many claim to be not only psychologically active, but to also possess powerful healing qualities on the physical level. While being one of the staple technologies of transformation used for millenia by people indigenous to the Amazon, it has become increasingly popular in the west among that niche population that finds such things to be of interest.

In his article, Casey writes once more about 'Cognitive Liberty', a subject close to his heart. His (self) defence during his trial for the manufacture of psychedelic substances a decade ago focussed upon cognitive liberty, the individual's freedom to do whatever he or she wishes to with their own consciousness, provided they are not thereby impinging on others' freedoms. Needless to say, the judge was not impressed, instead curtailing all manner of freedoms by sentencing Casey to twenty years in prison.

Cognitive liberty is allied, though not identical, to freedom of speech and thought. Rather than the freedom to communicate whatever we think or feel, it is concerned with the  freedom to experience internally whatever one wishes to. Should I hanker to take a plant or a pill, thereby facilitating a meeting with the Godhead, union with the cosmos, encounters with aliens and psychedelic serpents, relive pre-birth experiences or dredge up long-forgotten psychological trauma, then that is my business and my business alone. Government has no place in such matters.  This is the nub of cognitive liberty, as least as far as its application to forbidden substances goes.

Casey writes cogently about the 'special exemptions' sought by various self-styled religious groups with regard to the consumption of ayahuasca and other entheogenic plant substances ('We use these substances as religious sacraments; they are part of our religion. Therefore we should not be subject to the general prohibitions surrounding these substances'). Groups such as the Uniao do Vegetal and the Native American Church have campaigned with success using this approach. Their 'special case' is not a valid one, argues Casey. Spiritual aspirations are equally spiritual aspirations, regardless of whether they involve meeting up with a bunch of like-minded people in a 'church', or sitting alone at home or in a forest. Cognitive liberty applies whether psychedelic-type substances are ingested for spiritual motivation or in order to watch the swirly colours and pretty patterns.

Casey goes on to consider some of the ayahuasca enthusiasts he met at the conference, and the 'specialness' that strong experiences with psychedelics can confer upon the partaker:

"At the Ayahuasca Conference, after listening to umpteen people tell me what 'Mama Aya' had told them - she told me this, she told me that - I was struck by more than a few thoughts. Many of those tales were of the more mundane nature of what to eat, who to break up with, who to get together with, what career to pursue, how to handle some tricky inter-personal situation, and so on. But more than a few of these stories were of a fantastical nature, about how the spirit of ayahuasca had facilitated talking with long-dead ancestors, how through ayahuasca they had gained access to a higher spiritual plane where they made contact with extra-dimensional beings who acted as guides or healers......"

Go through all this stuff - experientially, that is - and it's difficult not to end up feeling a little bit different. A little bit special, even: Mama Aya spoke to ME. A browse through a few entheogenic-based websites suggests that consumers of ayahuasca among the different psychedelic-type substances are especially prone to this.

I find it personally a bit disappointing that things do not seem to have changed much in this regard since my own LSD-fuelled epiphanies forty years ago. You knew at the time that it was erroneous, if not downright delusional, but it was hard to escape the 'us and them' mentality. 'We' had been there and seen things; while 'they' had not. 'They' were stuck in a little box of their own making without even realising it, and this limited the frame of discourse available. Our sense of being different only too easily morphed into a feeling of being special.

It is a tricky one. There is a sense in which 'we', and for that matter the ayahuasca visionary with the extra-dimensional soul guide, were different, and kind-of special. But not in the manner that normally revealed itself. The error - difficult to avoid - involves identifying with, becoming attached to, ones visionary experiences. Allowing them, if you like, to get swallowed up and become part of ones ego-identity. In 1976 I stopped using psychedelics the way I had for the previous three years. I was getting confused by going up and coming down into different psychic spaces all the time. Each experience seemed to correspond to something numinous, resembling a chapter from a Buddhist or Hindu text that I had read. But which was the real deal? To which could I truly say 'This is It!'?

The trick lies in letting go of all that commentary, that pigeon-holoing. Adopt instead an attitude of endless exploring of the mysteries of consciousness and the universe. Avoid the temptation to reify
experience by  looking for 'the Answer'. Changing all this is not easy - it involves a good deal of 'deep letting go'. But it can be done. I once read about an old South American shaman who was asked how many dimensions of existence there are. He was silent for a moment before replying. 'The number of dimensions is infinite' he said.'Every time I venture, I find something new.' So be it.

Having, in 1976, renounced the peculiar specialness conferred by LSD-catalysed mystical experience, I demonstrated how little I had learnt in this respect by becoming deeply involved with a certain Buddhist organisation. Which of course had a very special teacher. With a very special message. And was peopled by very special human beings doing very special things for the planet. Now, it was all special in a manner of speaking, whether in peak psychedelic experience or deep Buddhist meditation. But not in the way we normally think of it.....