The final zone I want to talk about in terms of psychedelic liminality is religion or spirituality, which I’d like to talk about in terms of the mystery religions of late antiquity. Many people have drawn very valid connections between the last few centuries of the Roman Empire and the world today. You have a globalized environment full of different kinds of people, along with a sort of mechanized state that is very efficient but rotten at the core. You have a very urban environment, in which many different kinds of people are coming together, and that pulls people out of their tribal connections to the rural places they come from. There’s a lot more movement in the empire. And it’s in this environment that you see the rise of the mystery religions, like Mithraism or Isis worship or gnosticism. Of course, there is also the famous mystery religion of Eleusis, which plays a very important role in the contemporary psychedelic story, but was actually much older than most of the mystery religions I am discussing. But in the waning centuries of the Roman empire, people fed their evident religious hunger and sense of spiritual dislocation by turning toward these exotic sects that promised, at the heart of the whole operation, an otherworldly experience. There was a desire for an experience of the self that went beyond the body, beyond the visible world, that seems very similar to today’s embrace of meditation, yoga and psychedelics.
So were they tripping? For me, that’s not the point. There is a tendency within psychedelic research, particularly the historical stuff, to assert that behind these vast religious mysteries across the globe lurk some kind of substance that’s "actually" producing spiritual experiences. Of course, we know there’s something botanical going on with soma, we know there’s something going on with Eleusis; there’s little fragments of it here and there, and of course we want to reconstruct what was actually going on. But this can also be very reductive, and in this way, we’re very modern. We’re still looking for the mechanism.
It’s my belief that once you take into account the way that cultural reality can program or set up a certain set of expectations, then you actually don’t need many chemicals thrown into the mix in order to produce a tremendously powerful experience. I find it unfortunate when psychedelic thinkers claims that real spirituality is just the psychedelic experience, and that everything else we see in religion is a pale reflection of the experience, either an attempt to reproduce it using cruder, slower, and to replace it entirely with crusty, dogmatic ideology. I mean, in some ways I think that’s probably an accurate description in a lot of cases, but I think it also misses a lot. And one of the things it misses are those stories and cultural frameworks that form the matrix for these experiences. By over emphasizing the "secret mushroom" behind iconography or in the eucharist, we tend to undercut the productive role of meaning, of those ongoing cultural frameworks that always shape our experiences. Though psychedelics are clearly universal in their action, the experiences that result are never completely purified of cultural and historical forces.
Another issue that’s raised by the mystery religions is the larger question about the importance of spiritual experience in the first place? It’s a pretty standard idea that we have spirituality over here, and we have religion over there. Spirituality is about your experiences: your mystical insights, the immediacy of spirit, gnosis. The real deal. Whereas religion we associate with institutional frameworks, with collective stories, with power relations, with established social relationships. And there’s this curious sort of balance between the two. At the heart of it the mystery religions is something like gnosis, a radical experience. Maybe it’s produced through a substance, maybe not. But there is an experience, a direct taste of the divine, of the otherworldly. And yet, again, it is embedded in this whole set of stories, practices and social frameworks. This context helps produce the shape of those experiences, and, far more importantly, helps integrate the residue of those experiences into ordinary life.
There’s a tendency inside of psychedelic spirituality, very strong and understandable, to say, "Now we are getting the goods, now we can skip all that ‘religion’ stuff and get right to the heart of it. We can go spiritual, we don’t need religion." But I’m not entirely sure that the problem ends there, because without certain frameworks for understanding and integrating experience, then even the most profound state of gnosis can become nothing more than a kind of wacky hedonism. Nothing wrong with hedonism, mind you, and we don’t hear nearly enough about the profound pleasures of spirituality. But taking any substance in a de-mythologized environment, where you’re buying a piece of blotter or taking a pill, can easily become a mechanistic repetition. It can lose any edge of genuine openness and integration, and become a kind of video game.
I don’t have an answer for any of this, because I don’t know what the right frameworks are. I don’t know what the big maps are, and I tend, like most of us perhaps, to be rather distrustful of people who think they know. If you look at some Brazilian ayahuasca sects, you find some very interesting things happening there from a religious anthropology perspective. And yet, it doesn’t take much interaction with them to see things that at least from a Western perspective are difficult: institutional hierarchies, authorities judging good experiences from bad, and organizing the narrative of the trip according to set ideas. These sects actually aid people in a lot of ways, even Euro-Americans. And yet some people in psychedelic culture are uncomfortable with formalized psychedelia, and with the ecological religiosity of the ayahuasca scene. So once again we are "in betwixt, in between": we know that we need frames, we know that by accepting and creating a spiritual environment, a spiritual story, the experiences themselves will have a much greater richness. (I mean, sometimes they’ll just come in and do whatever they’re going to do anyway.) And yet, what is our frame? What story should we be telling ourselves? Maybe the technical knowledge of set and setting itself already undermines the potential authenticity of experience dependent on set and setting.
I’m not sure whether the kinds of frameworks that we have so far are sufficient. One of them is the therapeutic model. Again, incredibly productive, and yet I’m not always so sure whether that is getting at the real heart of the spiritual potential of these molecules, to say nothing of their pleasures. There is still this emphasis on self-actualization, when I suspect that what psychedelics actualize may not be the self, at least in any conventional sense of the term.
Another example is rave culture, which is probably the best example of a kind of mass movement of people having serious psychoactive experiences. And raves in many ways are machines. They are designed in certain ways to produce trance effects, to derange everyday perceptual patterns, to key off archetypal experience with certain kinds of images. The drugs plug into the music and the music plugs into the drugs, and as the drugs and media evolve, they co-create these new environments and experiences. I don’t think you have to be too much of a worrywart to look at some aspects of rave culture, and wonder, what are they really doing? What is this for? What’s going on here? Trance is a two-edge sword.
So the question that tugs me is: Are there psychedelic values, and how can you communicate them? There does seem to be certain kinds of values and ethics that many people develop after a long, careful apprenticeship with these things. Meeting individuals from older generations, there’s certain things you pick up, a certain kind of openness and tolerance, a sweetness and a mirth. To me these point to some core values, even if they are too unspoken to even be considered values. But I suspect its pretty hard to transmit these values, and I don’t think the counterculture generation has done a very good job here. But is there a way to transmit these things? Or is it all just out of control? As soon as you start to try to control and define these values, then you make it more like religion. And yet, we have to acknowledge the chaotic effects of introducing psychedelics into youth culture without those contexts of meaning and ritual.
One of the good things about the old mystery religions is that they’re esoteric. There are levels of secrecy, even when the movement is popular. In order to work yourself up to the encounter, the experience, you have to go through a lot of social interaction, a lot of preparation, a lot of priming yourself for an encounter with what will always remain beyond your ken. And that structure also allows the production of wisdom people, whether you call them shamans, masters, of just people who know their stuff, and who pass on their knowledge and experience through organic, small-scale networks. There are mentors and apprentices, and those apprentices are able to reproduce those environments, changing them always slightly as the culture itself transforms. That kind of hermeticism still goes on, and it’s vital that it does go on –secret pockets and hidden social networks are vital to the continual richening of psychedelic culture and its influence on an increasingly psychoactive culture at large. At the same time, the genie is definitely out of the bottle. We live amidst a massive transformation of information networks, cultural, biological, and technological. It’s much easier to pluck potent and esoteric information out of the ether that in a more traditional society, where it would be guarded by the wacky alchemists, the witch at the edge of the village. They would be protecting their own game, but also insuring that information transfer occurs within a larger context, a more organic framework. Today everything hidden is becoming known. It’s all open, which means we are all liminal. The margins are mainstream, and every point is the center of things, which is another way of saying that we are all in between