From its origins, humanity has had a powerful urge to explore, not just the outer world but the universe that lies within.
A Psychonaut is a person who explores activities by which altered states of consciousness are induced and utilized for spiritual purposes or the exploration of the human condition.
Exploring the inner world, like the one outside is both exciting and frightening, with the potential treasures and dangers of any adventure. Just as people have set off on voyages and expeditions to the far corners of the earth and beyond, there are those who have sought to do the same within. Like the mariners, mountaineers, cavers, polar explorers, astronauts and aquanauts of the outer world at different periods, those who sought to visit and observe the inner world have ranged from the shamans of ancient and contemporary indigenous cultures to those who call themselves psychonauts. These explorers have used diverse techniques to access altered states of consciousness from self-mortification in various forms including fasting, sweating, sensory deprivation or overload, breathing techniques, sexual ecstasy, drumming, chanting and meditation. The most controversial have been the use of plants and chemicals that we know as hallucinogens, psychedelics or entheogens.
These substances have been known through the ages, around the world and their use in healing and problem solving as well as religious rituals have been common mostly among indigenous peoples, particularly in the Americas and Africa. Alongside with those medicines that expanded awareness were those that reduced it. These were important in reducing pain and inducing sleep, notably the opiates. These also carried the possibility of addiction, both in terms of psychological craving and physical dependence. For this reason, psychoactive substances have for long been controversial and the response of governments have varied from virtual non-interference to draconian laws against ‘inebriants’ usually from a moralistic viewpoint. In countries like the US, anti-drug prohibition has often been targeted against minorities and immigrants. Examples are the crackdown on opium in the 1890s, directed against Chinese immigrants, marijuana in the 1930 aimed at Mexicans and cocaine in the 1950s which affected mostly African-Americans.
In India, the colonial authorities tended to take a more relaxed attitude. They had actually sourced opium from India for a lucrative trade with China and fought wars in the 19th century when the Chinese government tried to restrict it.
Pressure from conservative factions led to a committee that studied the traditional use of marijuana for recreational, medicinal and religious purposes and submitted a report against a ban on these hemp products as a result of which they remained legal for nearly four decades after the end of colonial rule.
The earliest recorded evidence of Cannabis use in India dates back to 2000 BCE. Known by its popular name Bhang, it is sold in Government authorized shops and often used to make thandais (cold milk shake) during Maha Sivaratri and Holi between February and March.
In the meantime, one of the most important psychedelics, Lysergic Acid Dethylamide or LSD was discovered at the height of the Second World War by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffmann. LSD, like its cousins mescaline and psilocybin (which were found in cacti and mushrooms originally used sacramentally by indigenous people in North America before being synthesized in the laboratory) remained confined to small circles of chemists, psychopharmacologists, psychologists and other scientists who had easy access and could experiment on themselves to experience the effects in the absence of legal constraints.
By the early 1950s, pioneering psychiatrists and clinical psychologists like Hanscarl Leuner were already using it with their clients as an aid to psychotherapy.
They were an invaluable tool in accessing the contents of the unconscious mind even as the telescope was used to explore objects in deep space and the microscope to study cells and microbes too small for the human eye to see. They could greatly accelerate the course of analysis in psychotherapy and break through barriers that seemed impermeable. This also suggested potential uses in research into the deep structure of consciousness and also as a tool to unlock creativity which could be directed in artistic, scientific or other directions.
Among the noteworthy pioneers from these fields was British author Aldous Huxley whose book TheDoors of Perceptionwas to become a classic in the psychedelic movement subsequently. Writing such as these caught the interest of the press and through it the general public throughout the west. Since the substances were not controlled, they were readily, and cheaply available. These then began to be used by an increasing number of thrill seekers and others curious to have new experiences. This kind of casual, unsupervised use was not without risks and some individuals did suffer from the consequences. In the 1960s, psychedelics were adopted enmasse by the counterculture during the hippie movement which incorporated among other things aspects of pacifism, socialism, racial equality, feminism and sexual liberation, early environmentalism, pop arts, particularly music, pop psychology and various spiritual practices, particularly from the east. Mind-expanding substances fit in very well into this mix and were seen by both sides of the divide as an important facet of the rebellion. The CIA had early on tested LSD as a potential weapon, but found it useless for the purpose. On the other hand, the US military had a tough time in Vietnam with unwilling young men forcibly drafted into their killing machine, who ‘turned on and tuned in’ on pot and acid before deciding to ‘drop out’ of mainstream life. They were not particularly effective at killing communists at their government’s bidding. Furthermore, the same thing was happening in civilian life back in the USA with events like the Summer of Love in California and the Woodstock music festival. The Nixon administration realized that a very powerful way to target the counterculture was to target psychedelic drugs. By this time, the casualties of careless drug use had mounted including some celebrities.. These risks were now greatly exaggerated by the media. Under the pretext of saving society, in particularly youth, the Nixon administration declared its ‘War on Drug’. Since most of the people involved with the counter-culture, particularly its leaders were drug users, at least to some extent, this was a convenient way to discredit, threaten, harass and even incarcerate them. This was a major strategy in the campaign to remove this threat to mainstream western culture and was largely successful, though there were various factors that no doubt helped. The fact that many notable psychedelic proponents such a Timothy Leary, among others did a disservice to their own cause with their exaggerated claims of benefits while understating the risks and shunning opportunities to work with the authorities.
Many countries in Europe and elsewhere took the cues from the US. Soon, UN conventions compelled the rest of the world to follow suit. Plants and substances with a long history of sociocultural and medical use were deemed ‘illicit’ at on stroke of the legislative pen. All use was termed abuse and those who continued to produce, distribute or administer them were now treated as ‘traffickers’ deserving draconian punishments while all users were dubbed ‘addicts’ who had to be confined and forcibly treated for their own good. One useful substance MDMA which had initially escaped the dragnet was finally ‘controlled’ (more accurately, banned) by the mid 1980s.
Thus the last quarter of the 20th century was the darkest period when psychedelics were relegated by mainstream media to history as dangerous and mistaken discipline. However, even at a time when the nearly all funding for psychedelic research was for studies to prove their hazards, and attempts to look at their potential uses were considered career-limiting for young scholars, there were a few courageous scientists like Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) who bucked the trend. Since the beginning of the century, the tide has begun to turn.
Today, we see medicinal and even recreational marijuana being decriminalized in an increasing number of jurisdictions. In the US, MDMA is undergoing its third phase of clinical trials as a breakthrough drug to assist psychotherapy for patients with Post Traumatic stress disorder. Ketamine, which already had a lower scheduling (not an outright ban) is being used to treat depression and addictions. Psilocybin, found in ‘magic’ mushrooms has shown potential in treating cluster headaches, depression and addictions. Ibogaine, found in the root bark of the Eboga trees in western Africa and used as an entheogen by the Bwiti people has been found to have one of the highest success rates in treating addictions to hard drugs like heroin and cocaine apart from being a powerful catalyst in self-exploration. Ayahuasca, a combination of Harmaline from the Caapi vine and Dimethyl Tryptamine from the leaves of the Chacruna (Psychotria Viridis) tree in South America has similar benefits. Often used in parallel are Mescaline bearing cacti such as San Pedro and Peyote. These ceremonies are now being offered by shamans and syncretic sects such as Santo Daime in Brazil not only for their traditional religious adherents but for the growing number of tourists seeking the experience, some for shallow thrills, but others for more profound reasons including healing. Many healing and retreat centres also provide these treatments both as a cure and for personal growth.
The other trend we see are the increasing number of respectable organisations engaged in psychedelic research and a growing list of international conferences held every year at numerous locations worldwide where eminent scholars and practitioners share their work and their findings. Indeed hardly a day passes when you don’t see articles in the mainstream media talking about psychedelics without the stigma attached to them earlier. All this seems to indicate that psychedelics are back –if their proponents and practitioners do not make the same mistakes they did a generation ago. The Psychedelic Renaissance is here to stay and the new decade promises to bring even more exciting developments in this area.
A student of life engaged in Lifelong Learning, Learning through Living, Learning from Nature and in Community. Interested in finding alternatives to our currently destructive ways of living. I like to work with others in creating spaces where we can experience wholeness, integration and harmony with ourselves, with one another and the natural world. The key is consciousness, connection, compassion and creativity..