Saturday, December 20th. On the last weekend before the Christmas holidays, many people in Mexico are celebrating the traditional posadas: Festivities still clinging to some religious overtones, which for the most part have devolved into an excuse to eat a lot, drink a lot, and watch the kiddies beat the crap out of a star-shaped piñata, so they can afterward wrestle for all the candy and fruit inside of it once it finally breaks.
My own family is also gathered in one of those parties, but I'm not with them. I'm standing instead on a small circle with other people I've just met today, just a stone-throw away from the ancient city of Teotihuacán, whose massive ruins are now being shrouded by the darkness; on the circle's center there is a timid fire straining to illuminate the congregation, who is attentively listening to the voice of a short, elderly man, dressed in a white-cloth suit brightly adorned with colored patterns on the sleeves and the of bottom of his trousers. The words are an almost unintelligible mix of Spanish and indigenous dialect, spoken in a soft yet commanding tone. Standing next to him is his wife, his 18-year-old son, a teenage girl -- the son's girlfriend-- and a cheerful boy who couldn't be more than 7 years old, who is also the child of the elderly man.
The name of the man is Don Clemente, and he is a Marakame --a shaman or medicine man among his people, the Wixárika indians who are also known as Huicholes. His words, which were later translated by his oldest son --also with the same name-- are a salutation to all of us who have gathered around the circle on this fateful evening.
We are gathered here to celebrate a Winter Solstice ceremony ministered by the Marakame, and I am about to ... Read More »
Over at Boing Boing, Johann Hari (Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs) writes about drug use in the animal kingdom - and by extension, in human society. He begins by discussing the work of Professor Ronald Siegel:
As a young scientific researcher, Siegel had been confidently told by his supervisor that humans were the only species that seek out drugs to use for their own pleasure. But Siegel had seen cats lunging at catnip — which, he knew, contains chemicals that mimic the pheromones in a male tomcat’s pee —so, he wondered, could his supervisor really be right? Given the number of species in the world, aren’t there others who want to get high, or stoned, or drunk?
This question set him on a path that would take twenty-five years of his life, studying the drug-taking habits of animals from the mongooses of Hawaii to the elephants of South Africa to the grasshoppers of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. It was such an implausible mission that in one marijuana field in Hawaii, he was taken hostage by the local drug dealers, because when he told them he was there to see what happened when mongooses ate marijuana, they thought it was the worst police cover story they had ever heard.
Here at the Grail we've also previously posted about jaguars tripping on harmine and reindeer eating magic mushrooms. In his fantastic book High Society: Mind-altering drugs in history and culture, Mike Jay also notes that human drug use may have been, in some cases, inspired by other animals:
In many human cultures, the origin stories of plant-derived drugs involve tales of people observing and copying the habits of animals. In Ethiopia, for example, the discovery of coffee is attributed to goatherders who observerd their flock becoming frisky and high-spirited after consuming coffee beans. Goats are very fond of coffee, and modern plantations must be robustly fenced against them; their taste for the effects of caffeine may have prompted the plant, which spreads it seeds via animal droppings, to produce it. Theirs is a long-standing symbiosis, though human participation in the cycle is relatively new.
(For more on the beginnings of psychoactive drug use by humans, take a look at Paul Devereux's The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia*)
Both Johann Hari and Mike Jay also note another aspect of drug use in animals - that it is often closely related to their environment, and sometimes with trauma being suffered. Hari notes that in Vietnam, "the water buffalo have always shunned the local opium plants. They don’t like them. But when the American bombs started to fall all around them during the war, the buffalo left their normal grazing grounds, broke into the opium fields, and began to chew." In Professor Siegel's research, a mongoose avoided the hallucinogenic silver morning glory in its pen until its mate died in a storm. And Mike Jay cites the research of addiction psychologist Bruce Alexander, in which rats taken out of cages and given a pleasant environment to live in reduced their intake of a supplied morphine solution to 1/20th that of their caged neighbours.
In all, Jay concludes:
Such experiments do not disprove the claim that animals take drugs for their chemical rewards, but they do indicate that the impulse to take drugs is more than a simple behavioural reflex. In humans, of course, the variables become far more complicated. Sensory pleasure is an obvious component of most drug use, though the definitions of pleasure are as varied as human culture itself. But some drugs offer strictly functional benefits. The ability to alter consciousness in dramatic but controllable ways has many uses, and there is much evidence to suggest that humans have long used such drugs instrumentally: even, in some cases, elaborating their entire social systems around the heightened states of consciousness such substances produce.
(* Full disclosure: The Long Trip is printed by Daily Grail Publishing)
In this 48 minute appearance at the Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics forum in New York last month, Graham Hancock contemplates the history of how humans have dealt with psychedelics:
Graham Hancock investigates the possibility that by demonising and criminalising the use of psychedelics, rather than seeking out ways to harness their power for altering consciousness in safe and nurturing spaces, our society may have set itself on a profoundly negative path — a path that might even deny us the next step in our own evolution as a species.
After many decades of being a forbidden topic, research into psychedelic experiences and their possibly beneficial effects is once again blooming. For a fantastic exploration of the topic, check out the documentary Science and Sacraments (embedded above) which "surveys the history of psychedelic research and the current renaissance, focusing on the potential to enhance insight and creativity, foster psychological healing and growth, and catalyze spiritual awakening".
You can grab a hard copy of the documentary on DVD from the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
This beautiful earth that we have,
this gift that the universe has given us
is precious beyond measure,
precious beyond imagination,
and we are part of it
and we must treat it with
love, respect and reverence.
(Creator: Sean Gereson)
It is only the conceit of the scientific and postindustrial societies that allows us to even propound some of the questions that we take to be so important. For instance, the question of contact with extraterrestrials is a kind of red herring premised upon a number of assumptions that a moment's reflection will show are completely false. To search expectantly for a radio signal from an extraterrestrial source is probably as culture bound a presumption as to search the galaxy for a good Italian restaurant. And yet, this has been chosen as the avenue by which it is assumed contact is likely to occur. Meanwhile, there are people all over the world - psychics, shamans, mystics, schizophrenics - whose heads are filled with information, but it has been ruled a priori irrelevant, incoherent, or mad. Only that which is validated through consensus via certain sanctioned instrumentalities will be accepted as a signal. The problem is that we are so inundated by these signals - these other dimensions - that there is a great deal of noise in the circuit.
It is no great accomplishment to hear a voice in the head. The accomplishment is to make sure it is telling the truth, because the demons are of many kinds: "Some are made of ions, some of mind; the ones of ketamine, you'll find, stutter often and are blind." The reaction to these voices is not to kneel in genuflection before a god, because then one will be like Dorothy in her first encounter with Oz. There is no dignity in the universe unless we meet these things on our feet, and that means having an I/Thou relationship. One say to the Other: "You say you are omniscient, omnipresent, or you say you are from Zeta Reticuli. You're long on talk, but what can you show me?" Magicians, people who invoke these things, have always understood that one must go into such encounters with one's wits about oneself.
What does extraterrestrial communication have to do with this family of hallucinogenic compounds I wish to discuss? Simply this: that the unique presentational phenomenology of this family of compounds has been overlooked. Psilocybin, though rare, is the best known of these neglected substances. Psilocybin, in the minds of the uninformed public and in the eyes of the law, is lumped together with LSD and mescaline, when in fact each of these compounds is a phenomenologically defined universe unto itself. Psilocybin and DMT invoke the Logos, although DMT is more intense and more brief in its action. This means that they work directly on the language centers, so that an important aspect of the experience is the interior dialogue. As soon as one discovers this about psilocybin and about tryptamines in general, one must decide whether or not to enter into this dialogue and to try and make sense of the incoming signal. This is what I have attempted.
Link: Tryptamine Hallucinogens and Consciousness, by Terence McKenna
A nice little monologue by Joe Rogan, set to music and images, on how psychedelics and other border experiences offer a means for us to snap out of the routines that have blinded us to the majesty of life, and 'reset' ourselves. (NSFW language warning)
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One of the central plot devices in Frank Herbert's 1965 science-fiction epic Dune is melange - colloquially known as 'spice' - a naturally-occurring drug found only on the planet Arrakis which has numerous positive effects, including heightened awareness, life extension, and prescience. These effects make it the most important commodity in the cosmos, especially as the prescience allows for faster-than-light interstellar starship navigation (and thus trade) by the 'Guild Navigators'. The spice also has other more, deleterious effects, which begin with its addictive properties, a symptom of which is the tinting of the whites and pupils of the eye to a dark shade of blue.
This central theme of Dune has often prompted assocations with psychedelic culture - the mystical-surrealist avant-garde film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who once attempted to make a film based on Dune, said that he "wanted to make a film that would give the people who took LSD at that time the hallucinations that you get with that drug, but without hallucinating". The popular nickname for the strong hallucinogen dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT) - 'spice' - may also have taken some inspiration from the novel.
But it seems the origin of the spice theme actually does have a direct link to the psychedelic experience: in his book Mycelium Running, legendary mycologist Paul Stamets notes that not only was Frank Herbert a talented and innovative mushroom enthusiast, but that the sci-fi author confessed to him that Dune took its inspiration from Herbert's experiences with magic mushrooms:
Frank Herbert, the well-known author of the Dune books, told me his technique for using spores. When I met him in the early 1980s, Frank enjoyed collecting mushrooms on his property near Port Townsend, Washington. An avid mushroom collector, he felt that throwing his less-than-perfcct wild chanterelles into the garbage or compost didn't make sense. Instead, he would put a few weathered chanterelles in a 5-gallon bucket of water, add some salt, and then, after 1 or 2 clavs, pour this spore-mass slurry on the ground at the base of newly planted firs. When he told me chanterelles were glowing from trees not even 10 years old, I couldn't believe it. No one had previously reported chanterelles arising near such young trees, nor had anyone reported them growing as a result of using this method." Of course, it did work for frank, who was simply following nature's lead.
Frank's discovery has now been confirmed in the mushroom industry. It is now known that it's possible to grow many mushrooms using spore slurries from elder mushrooms. Many variables come into play, but in a sense this method is just a variation of what happens when it rains. Water dilutes spores from mushrooms and carries them to new environments. Our responsibility is to make that path easier. Such is the way of nature.
Frank went on to tell me that much of the premise of Dune — the magic spice (spores) that allowed the bending of space (tripping), the giant worms (maggots digesting mushrooms), the eyes of the Freman (the cerulean blue of Psilocybe mushrooms), the mysticism of the female spiritual warriors, the Bene Gesserits (influenced by tales of Maria Sabina and the sacred mushroom cults of Mexico) — came from his perception of the fungal life cycle, and his imagination was stimulated through his experiences with the use of magic mushrooms.
It seems Frank Herbert did indeed 'let the spice flow'!
"Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change", said the fictional chemist Walter White on the hit television show Breaking Bad. "Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that's all of life, right? It's the constant, it's the cycle. It's solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation". Walter White's words paint him as much a latter-day alchemist, ruminating on the mysteries of life and metamorphosis, than as the criminal crystal meth technician that he was.
His words also serve as a succinct description of the questions that drove real-life drug chemist, Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin, who entered the state of physical dissolution at around 5pm on June 2nd, 2014, just a couple of weeks short of his 89th birthday. Shulgin too was fascinated by the study of change - in his case, how the mind and consciousness could be modified so profoundly through interactions with the most nuanced changes to molecules. "I was always interested in how, if you move one carbon atom, for example, on amphetamine, you can change it from being a strong stimulant to a psychedelic," he once told a reporter. "How is it that the difference of one atom produces such a dramatically different result in the human? The answer is, nobody knows."
Shulgin though, was no Walter White. His concern was not with power or making money (so much so that wife Ann once quipped that a little money would have been nice), and for the most part his experiments synthesizing new drugs were done on the right side of the law (he held a Schedule 1 license until 1994). It was always that question, about the change in consciousness produced by chemical modifications, that drove him throughout his life. And as such, the test subject for the synthesized psychedelics that he invented was always, primarily, himself (as well as another willing subject, wife Ann). Their seminal books TiHKAL and PiHKAL ('Tryptamines/Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved') provide a permanent record of their bio-assay experiments; a typical entry, such as that for the tryptamine DIPT, includes the chemical procedure to synthesize the drug, followed by comments on the qualitative aspects and duration of the experience (18mg: "Wild effects noted in an hour. Remarkable changes in sounds heard"; 250mg: "Shortly after I ingested the substance I heard a spirit say, 'Once in a lifetime.' She encouraged me to believe that I would have more life after the experience. But, there was a feeling of foreboding"). Each entry finished with a personal commentary, which might touch on anything from chemistry notes to possible applications of the drug. Not all experiences were interesting or enjoyable though, as one might expect when experimenting with the effects of newly designed chemicals – the Shulgins suffered, on various occasions, nausea, periods of unconsciousness, and terrifying psychological symptoms.
This combination of precise chemistry skills with the drive to self-experimentation and self-exploration evokes the label of 'alchemist' all too easily. And Sasha Shulgin's physical appearance ... Read More »
With modern Western culture continually spreading throughout the globe, glimpses of fascinating ancient traditions become like jewels when we are lucky enough to observe them. Thankfully, when photographer Asher Svidensky was privileged to watch a 13-year-old huntress in Mongolia using an eagle to catch foxes, he captured the girl and her huge bird for the rest of us to see:
The Kazakhs of the Altai mountain range in western Mongolia are the only people that hunt with golden eagles, and today there are around 400 practising falconers. Ashol-Pan, the daughter of a particularly celebrated hunter, may well be the country's only apprentice huntress.
They hunt in winter, when the temperatures can drop to -40C (-40F). A hunt begins with days of trekking on horseback through snow to a mountain or ridge giving an excellent view of prey for miles around. Hunters generally work in teams. After a fox is spotted, riders charge towards it to flush it into the open, and an eagle is released. If the eagle fails to make a kill, another is released.
Head over to the BBC to see more photographs and read the full story.