For one of my first articles as Religion writer for The Daily Targum, the school newspaper at Rutgers University, I wrote about psychedelic drugs aiding the religious experience. A photographer came to my apartment and snapped pictures of a makeshift shrine created on my dresser, which probably featured a bong or pipe of some sort (kind of hard to get close-ups of tabs of LSD), a copy of some scripture and a Timothy Leary book, maybe a feather or serpent. Needless to say, it was a naïve construction more concerned with the mid-'90s counter-culture, whatever that might have been, than seriously exploring the connection between what were so politically labeled "drugs" and the arduous road to enlightenment.
Yet a serious search was going on. I was working towards a degree in Religion, focused on "eastern" paths. I took part in independent studies on the historical and modern uses of ritual substances, both inside of the brick buildings on Douglass campus as well as my Somerset St apartment, not to mention the beautiful and often undiscovered ecological preserve on the Livingston campus in Piscataway. While I might have been young in believing that the ingestion of certain substances and enlightenment could be synonymous, I was not fully disillusioned in understanding that, if properly used, specific plants could help restructure and reorient consciousness.
It was not until I became devoted to the philosophy of yoga some years later that I was offered a harsh glimpse of just how much dedication any sort of religious path entails. Abiding by a philosophy means living up to its codes, not just paying it lip service, or tagging along with the religion of your parents. I had no desire to be "culturally" religious, as many of my friends expressed their own faith. I was seeking the real deal, perhaps somewhat behind the curve as I was raised with no religion whatsoever ("Because I was raised with too much of it," my father informed me), perhaps somewhat ahead of it as I wasn't bound to one particular brand of faith forcing me to choose this god or that.
Make no mistake, my psychology was fully Judeo-Christian--humans are naturally sinful; there is something divine out there, but you won't find out about it until after you die; the universe as a series of causes and effects, something absent in systems that understand time to be circular, not linear. Entheogens offered me a glimpse of other possibilities. So when I read the recent NY Times article, "Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again," about the revived interest in using psychedelics to treat psychological and physical ailments, my initial reaction, after a smile, was: Why did we ever stop in the first place?
We know why: politics. After being successfully used and loved for centuries, hemp was outlawed thanks to various industries lobbying their products to the forefront of consumer consciousness. After the marijuana scare came Timothy Leary, who, while having good intentions, turned a serious scientific inquiry regarding the benefits of psychedelics into a hippie sideshow. Then Nixon used his drug war to silence Vietnam protestors, realizing the quickest way to do so was to steal their stash. While this is but a crude synopsis, we were told to fear these drugs even while we were--and continue to be--fed narcotics that are damaging and, if overused, lethal: cigarettes and alcohol, not to mention the completely unnatural additives in various food products.
Tobacco is a plant. Alcohol often begins with plant life. Psilocybin is a fungi, which grows wild across the planet, and DMT, the source of much discussion of late, is not only found in plants, it's produced by us. Think about that: something that our bodies naturally produce is illegal for us to ingest. Talk about body issues.
The therapeutic-psychedelic movement was rekindled by Dr Rick Strassman, who around the time I was partaking in my Rutgers experiments, received authorization to clinically test DMT in a laboratory, the first such approval since the Electric Kool Aid Gang was silenced three decades prior. His results were published in his book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, the inspiration behind a documentary film based in Austin, which will be rolling out on screens in the next few months.
One interview in particular has stayed with me since I watched an early screening in December: modern America is the first culture to completely ban these substances, instead of using them to explore the expansion of consciousness. Rather than employ organic life as a means of enhancing our experiences of the world around us, and understanding our place within it, we criminalize those who do and promote foods and drugs that we know are killing us. Then we create more drugs to heal us of those drugs, which continue to damage us in an unforgiving spiral, and pay for this damage every step of the way.
It is common to find that a poison and the remedy grow close to one another in the forest; most animals have that knowledge without consulting medical dictionaries. It should not surprise us that these so-called psychedelics have healing properties. Having our perceptions ripped apart and torn asunder, handed back to us anew--there is a reason people call it a "trip"--is something everyone should experience. The real danger is believing you've got the patent on the only proper way to live, making the actual danger of psychedelics the fact that you might just be humbled by them. Humility is a wonderful lesson every one of us should learn, because only after we move beyond hubris can real healing occur.
There is also little surprise that the medical doctors in the Times article are comprehending the link between a person's psychological outlook, which is where the real benefit of these substances comes into play, and their overall quality of living. These connections have been understood by global cultures for thousands of years. If modern Americans want to throw that knowledge inside of a new package and call it their own, so be it. It reminds me of the "tests" as to whether or not meditation helps relieve stress. The person meditating does not have to have their brain waves measured to know that it does. At least we're finally waking up to the reality that what grows in nature can benefit us, and too often the fears and ignorance that fester inside of our minds is the actual toxic substance.