Shindig!: Patrick, your book explores the many facets of psychedelia, from academia through to the myriad work of philosophers, psychologists, musicians, authors, and the man in the street. Was there any one audience in particular that you were reaching out to or is the book intended as a guide to anyone interested in psychedelia?
Patrick Lundborg: I always try to have a fairly distinct idea about who I am writing for. I believe this is a vital checkpoint for any creative enterprise. The Acid Archives book as an example, was aimed at a certain subset of record collectors, and designed with them in mind. The Psychedelia book is wider and more complex as a project, but ultimately I came up with an idea about who the typical reader might be. This is based on the prospective reader’s attitude towards psychedelic drugs. The book was not written for people who are opposed to psychedelic drugs, nor people who are completely new to the field. The typical Psychedelia reader I envision as a person who has some direct experience of psychedelic drugs, knows a bit about Tim Leary and Ken Kesey, and is eager to find out more. In this group I also include people who have never taken psychedelic drugs, but feel a natural affinity to the field, and might lose their psychedelic innocence in the future. In short, the book is written primarily for people with one foot inside the door, and one of its main objectives is to provide these fine men and women with the tools and knowledge needed to develop a fully-blossomed psychedelic lifestyle.
SD:.What did you attempt to accomplish with your work that you felt was lacking in all the previous literature on the subject?
PL: One of the main impulses for writing Psychedelia was the realisation that there existed a psychedelic culture in the West, which has been alive for thousands of years yet never properly identified. I have always felt somewhat annoyed with the approach to psychedelic drugs that developed in the ’50s-60s and which, to some degree, still shapes the field today. The idea that this otherworldly, often life-altering experience and its subsequent effects on personality and creativity, was some kind of subset to psychology or new age religion strikes me as absurd. I state this repeatedly in the book and hopefully the message comes forth. Psychedelia is its own world, its own culture; it is very old, it pops up in places where it hasn’t been recognised. This realisation provided vital energy when I wrote the more theoretical chapters in the book. Once you start viewing psychedelia as a unique phenomena, a long-lived mystery cult and lifestyle, the whole approach to hallucinogenic drugs begins to change. More important than lamenting the wrong-headed ways of the past 50-60 years is for us to take this realisation into the future.
SD: Can one understand the conclusions of your analysis without partaking in the psychedelic experience? Isn’t that like describing the colour blue to a blind person?
PL: I think the conclusions can be understood on a purely logical level, provided that one reads a number of high quality trip reports first. There is no ontological difference between an acid trip and a nightly dream, and all of us dream. So there is a reasonable analogue, at least. The case I make for a psychedelic philosophy, and the more radical theories towards the end of the book, should be intellectually within reach for those who had never had a psychedelic experience. At the same time, it will be a theoretical understanding only, which will lack the gut confirmation, private memory references, and emotional response that, hopefully, an acidhead or DMT smoker has when reading about the different levels of the trip, the entities and symbolic gateways, and so on. So I believe an “outsider” understanding is possible, but insufficient.
SD: Who would you count among your strongest influences in both your analytical style and presentation of ideas?
PL: There are two books where I can look back and see a direct impact not only on my writing, but on my overall approach as a student of pop/underground culture. The first one was Michael Gray’s ’70s book The Art Of Bob Dylan, which I read over and over when I was 15-16. With a light intellectual tone Gray showed how Dylan connected back to the literary and musical tradition, to Allen Ginsberg and T S Eliot and William Blake, but also to blues and country. The consistent and lucid way in which Gray dealt with these scholarly observations, ranging from avant garde poetry to Delta blues singers, was an eye-opener. It is a very good book for junior scholars. Michael Gray’s book also opened my eyes for modernist Anglo-Saxon poetry, primarily the Eliot-Pound cluster. T S Eliot is a life-long obsession of mine, and I was pleased that I could work him into the Psychedelia book by way of Apocalypse Now. In my early 20s I even considered a scholarly career on the subject, until I realised how crowded the field was with Oxbridge and Ivy League big-shots. So I became an amateur scholar instead, fortunately enough, and that’s where I learned how to analyse and discuss works of art. I must have read over 100 academic studies of Eliot, Pound and James Joyce, and the average quality of this literary criticism is very high. Among the critics I ran across was Hugh Kenner, a Canadian professor and friend of Marshall McLuhan, who became my ideal model for the scholar-researcher. Kenner’s masterwork is the 1972 The Pound Era, in which he sums up all his experience, private and scholarly, of the London modernists, and from this bank of knowledge he spins an amazing carousel that mixes theoretical insight with amusing snapshots of the old poets and their idiosyncrasies. Hugh Kenner is mentioned in the foreword of Psychedelia, and if there is a work that served as a model for my book, it is The Pound Era. I encourage anyone with the slightest intellectual interest to check it out; it raises one’s IQ 10 points, and it’s both funny and moving.
SD: I felt that I must take exception to your assessment that “the East Coast Downtown scene left no thoroughly psychedelic recordings behind”. For me a work like Steven Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians is more psychedelic than Alan Watts’ This Is It and Ken Kesey’s Acid Test albums because it enabled me to explore Innerspace through uninterrupted repetition as opposed to the other works whose cacophonous, almost unlistenable amateurism made inner concentration nearly impossible to achieve.
PL: This Is It is a slightly challenging work, but hardly more challenging than the average work from the NYC avant-scene, from which I believe it drew some inspiration. The album was a much-loved title among psychedelic record collectors long before its historical importance was pointed out, something I can take some credit for back in the early ’00s. I find it to be a spontaneous outburst of purposeless play, much like Alan Watts intended it, and I like its intensity and tribal feel. I don’t think it has been misrepresented, at least not by me. It’s certainly not minimalism or carefully composed art music, but a bunch of acidheads going with the flow, much like Yahowa 13, except that the year was 1962.
Still, yours is an important objection which I hope will be debated in the wake of the book. In the chapter about proto-psychedelic music I suggest that minimalism is, by its nature, non-psychedelic. Minimalism is meditative, but it is not psychedelic. By this I mean that the defining characteristics of minimalism, such as the skeletal soundscape and the use of repetition, do not fit very well with the defining characteristics of the psychedelic experience, which I might describe as a sensory richness, an expansive type of thinking, and an elastic perception of time. These are things you will meet even on fairly low doses of LSD or mushrooms. So I see minimalism almost as an anti-thesis of psychedelic aesthetics. This does not diminish the fact that minimalism can have a very profound, meditative and introspective effect on the listener, but to me it’s a very different kind of transcendence than the one colourful and slightly chaotic effect you get in the lysergic world.
SD: Where does “Virtual Reality” fit into the psychedelic exploration, if at all?
PD: When it comes to Virtual Reality, I am surprised how it fell flat on its nose after a promising start. It went the same way as “cyber-punk”, at roughly the same time, and the two seem linked somehow. In retrospect, Virtual Reality looked posed to be a great trend of the hip, tech and drugs-friendly ’90s, but it didn’t happen. I think it was a case of the idea running ahead of the technological capacity, and people were ultimately disappointed once they actually got to try a VR set-up with the poor graphics and clunky helmet and glove. The idea was right, however, and any year now Virtual Reality will come roaring back with totally updated gear and razor-sharp graphics. I certainly look forward to it. The experience, if done well enough, may feel psychedelic, but most of all I believe it will simply be extremely fun.
SD: You don’t touch much upon the experimental art films and animations or recent fiction films such as Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void that were made to evoke an hallucinogenic drug trip. Noe in fact has stated that he wanted the film “to be very trippy to remind me of my earlier [psychedelic] experiences.” Is that simply through a lack of exposure to these films and is that an area you might like to pursue further at some point? Film does seem to be one of the few areas not touched upon in too much detail in your book.
PD: I chose to single out Apocalypse Now for a lengthy discussion as it seemed to offer the richest material to work with, and there are also several references to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, and Avatar spread out in the book. In addition, a dozen pages in Chapter 20 examine the history and current standing of psychedelic cinema. I do not believe that film as an art form has yet embraced the psychedelic experience in a way that pop music did almost from the very start, and for that reason there aren’t that many major motion pictures to discuss from the psychedelic perspective. Much as I love the New Hollywood of the ‘70s, I believe that it was unfortunate that realism and earthiness became leading aesthetic themes in the wake of Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, etc. Imagine if “2001” had set the dominant tone for ’70s cinema, what an incredible outpouring of psychedelic movies we might have seen. Regarding art house films, I cover a number of openly psychedelic experimental shorts from the ’60s in the book, but can readily admit that I am likely to have missed some. I will look into the Gaspar Noé film you mention. If I would make an expanded edition of the book sometime in the future, the movie section is likely to be given more space.
SD: You often refer to “reports by psychedelicists” when citing examples throughout your book. Did you interview acknowledged “psychedelicists” for these reports or are you referring to published references that you uncovered during your research?
PD: Both. Over the years I have read hundreds of trip reports and interviews with psychedelicists, both on the internet and in psychedelic magazines such as The Entheogen Review, and from this certain recurring patterns emerge. Not just with the contents of a powerful trip, but also with the attitudes and changes that these people have gone through from their psychedelic experiments. In addition I have spoken at length with my local friends, several of which are as interested in psychedelia as I am. In the late ’80s we formed a psychedelic artist collective called The Lumber Island Acid Crew (“Lumber Island” is a jokey translation of Stockholm). This tight-knit group developed a psychedelic lifestyle which drew partly on The Merry Pranksters and Timothy Leary’s scene at Millbrook, but most of all we created it by and for ourselves, based on our current reality and the trips we had. This group of a dozen or so local heads provided me with much of the input assigned to “psychedelicists” in the book. We’re still going today. [See our “Swedish Retro Rock” feature in Shindig! #29 for more information.]
SD: The zenith of man’s psychedelic experience seems to have occurred at the Great Temple at Eleusis, which you refer to many times throughout your manuscript. Do you think that mankind has been seeking to return to the Temple of The Great Mysteries ever since – perhaps the set and psychedelic vehicles (i.e., drugs) have changed over the years, but the journey still remains?
PL: To quote the Dalai Lama, “I sure hope so!”. The Psychedelia book stops short of describing a future psychedelic Utopia, but it’s an interesting subject for sure. I will probably write something, perhaps an entire book, about the possibility and nature of a psychedelic society. This would definitely draw on the pre-Christian model of Eleusis, where pantheistic and holistic ideals form the guiding light.
SD: Do you think we will ever be able to return or has religion and politics made that an impossible proposition? I’m referring to your discussion of William Blake and his quote about a system that was formed and removed the link between the human perception of nature and the divine realm.
PL: I don’t think there is any chance that nations, the way we see them today, will ever develop in the direction of an Eleusinian society, but what I take as entirely possible is that groups of people of a similar mind-set will splinter off from their original societies and form new enclaves that will be based on other ideals than the current Western model. I am referring to something different than the intentional communes that popped up during the hippie era, and which are covered in a chapter in my book. What I see in the future are independent societies that have cut off essentially all ties to the traditional nation model, so that they are not operating within something else, but rather outside everything else; a new form of state. There are interesting projects going on right now that are relevant to this, such as the “Sea-steading” initiative, which aims at establishing entirely independent miniature states on floating platforms or inhabited atolls. The bottom line to all this is that the existing nation-states, both in the West and East and South, are so fucked up that there’s no way they could be retro-fitted to the ideals of a psychedelic community. The typical psychedelic response is to simply turn your back to all the idiocy, hook up with people who are on the same trip, and start walking in a different direction.
SD: There are certain individuals who ascribe psychedelic experiences to communion with aliens or beings or consciousness from other planets or galaxies. Do you place any value in these suggestions?
PL: Not much. Fooling around with speculative ideas along these lines could be considered a form of purposeless play, but I can barely muster enough interest for that activity, let alone examine the ideas on a more serious plane. There is no shortage of strange and inexplicable phenomena in the reports from Innerspace (the place you go to when you’ve taken a psychedelic drug), and in line with the philosophy of phenomenology that I describe in the book, all these reports should be received and read with an equal, unprejudiced mind. And the number of reports that describe encounters with aliens that are truly incarnate on the physical plane and who communicate with humans aren’t very many. There are lots of aliens and entities reported in Innerspace, particularly under DMT, but the general understanding is that wherever they come from, they have no physical presence.
SD: Would you agree that psychedelics are not for everyone and in the wrong hands, a few people can ruin the possible advantages of a well controlled psychedelic trip for everyone (e.g., Millbrook, the baby-boomers who descended on the Amerindian tribes in Mexico)? In this regard, I tend to agree with the scientists and their elitist attitudes towards keeping the drugs out of the hands of the masses.
PL: I definitely agree with that. It is important both on the small scale, meaning a group of a dozen acidheads, and on the large scale, meaning society overall, that people who do not have the right cerebral configuration are kept away from LSD and such. In retrospect it seems a mystery how people in the ’60s such as Allen Ginsberg would promote the idea that everyone should take LSD. I guess since the basic sentiment back then was very optimistic, the negative reports were swept under the carpet. When the basic sentiment is negative, like in the late ’60s, the negative reports are instead inflated and exaggerated. It is a problem related to the hopeless lack of precision in mass-media. Once mass-media moves its hysteric personality to other fields, the atmosphere around psychedelic drugs improves quickly, since there is much less propaganda, peer pressure or scare headlines. In this sort of doldrum state, you will find that people who stay away from psychedelic drugs do so for a good reason. Even if they have only a vague idea about the effects, they sense that they do not want to open up their consciousness and risk losing control. It’s a valuable instinct.
Meanwhile, those who actively seek out information and look around for a chance to take psychedelics usually are the right candidates for the experience; they are drawn to it for a reason. So between these two poles there is a self-adjusting filtering process. But there will still be people who take psychedelics but haven’t done their homework and are scared stiff when the inner visions begin, and then it’s all down to their independent abilities to adjust to new and threatening experiences. My book opens with such a case, when Jean-Paul Sartre’s terrifying mescaline trip is recounted. He was not prepared for the massive experience and responded with resistance and denial, which is the surest way to get a bad trip. People shouldn’t feel embarrassed about having had a bad trip, so did Sartre!
SD: While carefully controlled / supervised “trips” can be extremely illuminating for many individuals, there are some who are simply not psychologically mature enough to deal with the outcome of a psychedelic trip. Do you think that is why so many governments illegalise the psychedelic drugs you discuss in your book? And I guess my next obvious question – should these drugs be legalised and made available to the general public, i.e., non-psychiatrists, scientists, etc?
PL: I believe a main reason why psychedelics are made illegal are political rather than pharmacological. There are few tools as efficient as psychedelic drugs to de-condition people from the materialist-positivist brainwashing that the modern Western lifestyle entails. LSD or psilocybin will do in four-five hours what political activists have failed to achieve even if they’re at it for decades—on a fairly average trip, the subject will see through the whole game of achievement-reward mechanisms, consumerism, competition over meaningless targets, and so on. This de-conditioning is extremely dangerous for a highly developed society, who simply cannot risk that one million white collar workers fail to turn up on Monday because they dropped acid during the weekend and realised what a joke it all was.
The other aspect, which was particularly important in the US, was that LSD also de-conditioned people from the state-approved Christianity they’ve been instructed upon since childhood. The acid trip is not Christian in its nature, it’s more in line with Buddhism. But most of all it encourages private spiritual search and to seek direct contact with divine realms, which again goes directly against the Judeo-Christian society. In 2013 this may not seem to matter much, but 50 years ago when legislation was brought up, the religious argument carried a lot of weight. The church saw early on that LSD was bringing people into spiritual realms the “wrong way”, and the concern was there from an early stage. The combined worries of politicians and clergymen was what made psychedelic drugs illegal, and I think their analysis was entirely correct—these tiny molecules are extremely efficient game-changers, more efficient than any education, media propaganda, political schooling or religious doctrine. Once the threat was understood, finding reasons why it should be made illegal was more of a technicality.
SD: You describe various effects of psychedelic voyages, both OEV and CEV (Opened and Closed Eye Visions). Many of these visions involve changes in perception of colours and objects, perhaps sounds with DMT. But how does one “know” that this is a psychedelic vision and not just a change in perception brought on by the drugs’ alteration of non-trip-induced phenomena. Surely the intent of a psychedelic voyage must be something more than enhancing your aural and visual senses and simply seeing brighter colours or hearing previously unheard notes in a piece of music? I’m thinking there’s more to Innerspace exploration than that?
PD: Absolutely. Although the perceptual effects are one of the most striking things on the early trips, it is only the icing on the cake. In the book I present a General Trip Model which is drawn from earlier models and vast amounts of research data. According to this model, the changes in perception—intensified light, distortion of colours, sounds becoming very strange, etc. — are typical of the first and lowest plane of the psychedelic trip. If you’ve taken a small dose, or work very hard to resist the effects, the psychedelic journey won’t offer you more than these effects and distortions, which can be arresting and beautiful, but lack any deeper substance. If you’ve taken a sufficient dose, you will move beyond this first plane into a second stage, which is signified primarily by personal, psychological themes. There are higher planes beyond that, but I refer to my book for a detailed description. The bottom line, as you say, is that the funny colours and stuff are just a praeludium for the real trip. I think the Psychedelia book makes this clear, in fact several of the final chapters address only the highest planes of the psychedelic experience, and they may not make sense to someone whose trips never went beyond the optical and aural funhouse.
SD: You seemed to be somewhat bemushroomed yourself in your chapter on Terence McKenna. Yet it seems to me that there’s a lot more to it than simply heading out to the local forest and picking a bunch of wild mushrooms and heading home to begin your voyage. Some of them might even kill you. So how do you differentiate between what is perceived to be the psychedelic effects of the mushroom and a life-threatening experience?
PL: I’m not a serious mycophile like Gordon Wasson or Terence McKenna, but like most Scandinavians I have grown up with a generally favourable view of mushrooms as a fine food and an eccentric member of the woodland flora. When it comes to “magic mushrooms” it should be recognized that only a small percentage of the extant mushroom species contain the psycho-active alkaloids psilocybin and psilocin. Those who go on mushroom hunts, and this is a popular pastime among hippies of all ages, know exactly what they are looking for, and there are in fact illustrated field guides that cover the hallucinogenic plants only. In Europe there is only one single psycho-active species (Psilocybe semilanceata), and in North America less than 10 species grow in any wider distribution. So, much like a gourmet chef looking for wild chanterelles, it’s easy to make absolutely sure that you’ve found what you’re looking for, and you don’t pick ’shrooms at random or through guesswork. The psychedelic mushrooms are quite safe, a drug like Ecstasy is more lethal than magic mushrooms. Even the fly agaric, whose psycho-active properties have been described as “toxic” in many cultures, is a relatively safe plant drug. Tim Leary’s advise “Just Say Know” applies here, and it seems to be heeded among modern mycophiles.
SD: You speculate on the true nature of Orange Sunshine and reports that it may actually have been ALD-52. Have you ever contacted Tim Scully or Nick Sand to get their version of the story?
PL: Scully left the scene long ago and apparently remains silent on psychedelic matters. Nick Sand, as far as I know, still stands by the story he told back in the ’70s, which I recount in detail in the book. My questioning of the claim that Orange Sunshine was ALD-52 is a theory and nothing conclusive, and there are supporters for both sides – those who have spoken with Sand seem to favour the ALD-52 line, while I think the Occam’s Razor analysis says something else, which I lay out in the chapter about the history of LSD.
SD: You conclude that excellent chapter on LSD with a dialectical dilemma, pointing out the different governmental stances toward psychedelic drugs in American and the Netherlands. Would you say it is virtually impossible for all governments to come together on an international drug policy and that access to psychedelics will always be determined by the country you’re in?
PL: The US lead the charge here, as they have through the entire history of anti-drug legislation. Many do not realise that anti-drug laws of any kind (alcohol excepted) are less than 100 years old, and so they’re hardly carved in stone. Each nation takes a slightly different view of the psychedelic drugs depending on the socio-cultural climate and traditions in the country, but as in a lot of other matters, there is an informal harmonising of legislation across national borders. In general, LSD-related crimes are treated almost as harshly as heroin-related crimes, which is pretty absurd, but a direct consequence of the draconian laws that the USA passed from ’66 onwards. Other countries in the West followed suit, to less or more a degree. The Netherlands stand out as a liberal haven for many other things than just light drugs, and in all likelihood they will remain the odd man out, the glorious exception. However, I think we can count on a more sensible legislation concerning psychedelics in the future, the on-going legalisation of marijuana is a clear indication in that direction.
SD: You shared some interesting theories on the so-called “mushroom stones” of the Mayans, but seem to be agnostic in your belief that they really represented psych-active mushrooms. Is this really just another in a long line of inexplicable artefacts?
PL: This is an enjoyable topic because anyone can chime in and express an opinion. You needn’t be an archaeologist or scholar of anthropology to take a stand in the mushroom stone issue; it all depends on to what extent you think the stones look like mushrooms, and nothing else than mushrooms. One can speculate on other purposes for these carved stones, and several such hypotheses are presented in the book. It’s vital to realise that the mushroom stone theory is by no means established as a “fact” among scholars, which is the impression you get if you read only the psychedelic literature. I am personally slightly sceptical towards the “mushroom” interpretation, but anyone interested should decide for themselves.
SD: You discuss in great detail the four main psychedelics and recount historical trip reports and other literature which describes the effects of consuming these psychedelic drugs. But I didn’t see much discussion of the intrepid psychedelic explorer who mixes and matches them. In your experience and research, do most psychedelicists prefer to stick to just one of these drugs during each psychedelic session? Have you read about multiple drugs being consumed at a single session and does the combination affect the resulting psychedelic experience?
PL: Each one of the four major psychedelics offers an all-inclusive trip into a realm that is in itself fully developed and which seems to offer infinite variation no matter how many times you go there. Nothing is really achieved by combining two or more of the classic drugs because they all take you to this mindblowing, alien realm (which I call “Innerspace”) and it takes a lifetime to explore just one of them. The few reports I’ve seen of people combining major psychedelics have tended towards the negative – Terence McKenna described a very unpleasant trip he got from combining psilocybin mushrooms with DMT. I have for my own part never even considered mixing these things, it seems a pointless and somewhat disrespectful action, like pouring two different brands of champagne into the same glass. Whatever you get, it’s not going to be better than either one of them. Instead, those interested should sample the different psychedelics, with the usual careful preparations of set, setting and dosage, and try to figure out which of them is their particular favourite.
SD: The different drugs appear to affect different parts of the brain and it seems that each drug produces a different type of psychedelic experience.
PL: This is a complex issue, but I would not say that they affect different parts of the brain. The known activity is related to the neurotransmitter substances serotonin and dopamine, which occur naturally in the brain and are in fact of great importance for cerebral processing. There is a certain difference in the degree to which different psychedelics affect serotonin and dopamine receptors in the brain, but they all do basically the same thing. Scientific knowledge of how it all works is still fairly rudimentary, due to the fact that brain and consciousness research is in such a rudimentary stage – a fact which some may find surprising. There are major insights in store in the future as to how the human mind works, because we know very little. The psychedelic drugs sit right at the centre of this research due to their specific action, and this is one reason why they never will disappear from the agenda; it’s just too important stuff.
But regarding the experience of the drugs per se, I would venture that mescaline/peyote and LSD trips are very similar, a view which Aldous Huxley shared among others. They form one sub-group, and the other sub-group are the “tryptamines”, meaning psilocybian mushrooms and DMT/ayahuasca. The tryptamines have certain properties which LSD and mescaline generally lack, and this is undoubtedly due to a slightly different effect on the neurochemistry of the brain. I refer to the book for details on these differences in action and trip experience.
SD: Some of your analysis delves pretty deeply into botanical and/or medical discussion – the effects of the drugs on specific brain receptors, etc. So would it be fair to say that your audience may benefit from a more fuller understanding of some of your concepts if they had some passing knowledge of botany or human physiology or biology? I know I had a bit of a hard time following some of the discussions of serotonin receptors, indoleamines, phenethylamines, and partial agonists, et. al.!
PL: The book uses a lot of technical terminology, which is due to the fact that I want it to work as an encyclopaedia, in addition to the narrative story arc. When I introduce a scholarly word such as “soteriological”, I also make sure to clarify what it means. If you come upon this difficult but useful word, you can look at the A-Z index (available on-line) for a page reference, and on that page there will be an explanatory sentence or two. The scientific jargon is there in order to provide this encyclopaedic/glossary feature, rather than having to refer to other books. At the same time, I don’t think the book is particularly advanced in its basic reasoning – there are discussions of ”beta-carbolines” and how they combine with “tryptamines”, but I never go into the formal biochemistry in this combination. Doing that would have been genuinely difficult to follow for the lay reader, and I’m not the right person to present the hard science involved. So on one hand, the book uses a lot of “50 cent words”, but the ambition is that a moderately educated reader should be able to understand the reasoning; you needn’t be a specialist at all.
All that said, the last three chapters of the book, which is where I present my own psychedelic theories, can be challenging in places, because some aspects of these theories are complex no matter how you approach them. I’m happy to try and clarify what I mean, in fact I hope there will be a debate of my “Unified Psychedelic Theory”!
SD: You seem to have little regard for the histrionics of the David Crosbys and Timothy Learys of the world and their ill-fated efforts at proselytising the benefits of LSD consumption. Looking back, do you think they did more harm than good to the psychedelic movement in general and the benefits of psychedelic drug use in particular?
PL: There is still today no consensus on the fallout from the psychedelic ’60s, and there may never be one. It’s very easy to lay a fat guilt trip on Timothy Leary and blame him for all the legislation and so forth, but in the middle of such a rant you suddenly realise that if it hadn’t been for Leary, you probably would never had heard of psychedelic drugs, let alone given access to them. I take a Taoist view on this matter, and see what I call the second phase of modern psychedelia – The Counterculture ’60s-70s – as something that the psychedelic realm needed to go through. Whatever it was, psychedelia survived it. The “ifs” and “buts” should be abandoned by now.
SD: You suggest that the one thing that history will remember about the ’60s is the Moon landing. How do you come to this conclusion. Are we too close to the decade, although it is nearly half a century away now, to consider that if you ask anyone about the decade, the first thing they will remember is the music, the anti-war rallies, and the whole Summer Of Love commercialisation of psychedelia. Many people gauge their record collections by what records and bands from the ’60s are in them. Perhaps it’s nostalgia or Utopian ideologies that flood one’s memories of those days, but I doubt many people would put “landing on the Moon” amongst the Top 10 memories of the ’60s?
PL: I mean this from the perspective of 200 years from now, when all the living memories are far gone. Over generations, the history books are re-written, and what ultimately survives as “important” are the great, tangible achievements – discoveries of new continents, the introduction of new political systems, and so on. If you look at the ’60s, and then at the ’80s, you can see that a lot of the things that the Baby-boomers took pride in had already been eradicated. The Western society was almost as conservative in ’84 as it had been in ’54. There was a great party and a lot of demonstration, but most of the presumed “changes” didn’t even survive for two decades. A lot of the things that the Baby-boomer hippies perceived as important or even a “revolution” of sorts were just ripples on the surface; cultural phenomena rather than political. The heavy symbolic value of something like Woodstock is incomprehensible to younger people, when you describe it, it sounds like just another rock festival. It wasn’t even the biggest rock festival of the era.
The Moon landing on the other hand is one of the most important and impressive achievements in the history of mankind; and the more you think about it, the more amazing does it seem. I believe the notion of the ’60s as something special will live on for another 10-15 years, but as the last Baby-boomer hippies pass away, their era will be reduced to a memorable bump in cultural history, like the roaring ’20s. The most important political change of the ’60s – the civil rights movement – was not initiated by the hippie Baby-boomers, but by their elder siblings. As was the Moon landing. A view often heard among younger people is that the two important things the ’60s left behind was the music and the drugs.
SD: You address D.T. Suzuki’s controversial theories that all major religions are based on psychedelic experiences. What are you own thoughts on this subject? Is it possible that Christ was sharing psychedelic substances at The Last Supper? Is it possible that many of the classic visions of mystics and saints were accidentally (or even intentionally) drug-induced? Or do you believe they were psychological or physical aberrations – “epilepsy or a random peak in cerebral neurochemistry of a spiritually gifted individual” as you ask in your book?
PL: This is a field where we will never know for sure, and I’m a little surprised that renowned scholars (like Suzuki) make such drastic pronouncements. I do believe that visionary experiences lay behind all major religions and spiritual cults. Among these visionary experiences some may have been triggered by hallucinogenic plants, which could be anything from psilocybian mushrooms to the vastly distributed and extremely potent Datura. But the thing to bear in mind is that millions of people have profound visionary experiences without the use of any drugs, and so it’s clearly not necessary for drugs to be involved. And this is the view I put forward in the book – the visionary experience was vital to the origins of the religion, but it may just as well have been a spontaneous episode for a gifted individual, as an accidental plant drug trip.
SD: What is the objective of a psychedelic experience?
PL: It differs between trips. Purposeless play is always a legitimate way to spend a psychedelic night, but it is not sufficient over a long period. If a person does psychedelic a dozen times, I think that at least two of these experiences should be what I call “heavy” trips. A heavy trip is where you take maybe twice or thrice your normal dosage and venture forth into uncharted domains, places where you cannot fully control what happens. The objective of a heavy trip is radical self-improvement in the first stage, and insight into the higher planes of existence in the second stage. This may be achieved in one single sitting, or spread out across a few trips. The heavy trip is where you pass the acid test in full, an experience which truly demonstrates why psychedelic drugs are of a different order than all other “recreational” drugs. This is not recreational… this is heavy! If you look at my General Trip Model, what I’m describing is a trip where you go into the third level, and have a peak experience which may or may not push you into the fourth and highest level. However, this cannot be forced, because some people simply can’t access the fourth level, which is where you temporarily lose your ego and drift in a transcendental state. That experience is closed for some people, but the farther reach of the third level, where you’re involved in visions of profound symbolic-archetypal dramas of a personal or universal content, seems to be accessible to all.
Expressed as the sum of a psychedelic career, I would say the objectives are (A) purposeless play and enjoyment; (B) radical self-improvement a la “know thyself”; (C) profound insights into higher and transcendental realms beyond any personal concerns. All three objectives should be met during a truly psychedelic career. However, a lot of presumed “heads” never progress beyond objective (A), simply because they take too low doses, or by resisting the more profound levels of the experience.
SD: Can psychedelics assist in attaining soteriological states of enlightenment?
PL: That is the $64,000 question, isn’t it? My response would be that psychedelics can show you the highest end-states of a liberated consciousness, such as nirvana, but it will only be a display of the state, not the experience of the state itself. That’s why I compare psychedelics to certain intermediate stages that are familiar in the spiritual schools of the Far East, such as the “pseudo-nirvana”. The Buddhist and Hindu masters recognise these glimpses of the true glory as valid steps on the path. In Tibet there is even a formal initiation in which the guru temporarily reveals the final goal of the journey for the student, in order to motivate and confirm the practice. I find these sign-posts along the spiritual road to be comparable to psychedelic experiences—the acid or mushroom will point you in the right direction and save you some time as a shortcut. But the final leg of the journey cannot be traversed with the use of psychedelic drugs, if you want to achieve a change in consciousness that is permanent rather than just a glimpse.
As to whether a very gifted and advanced student could take LSD as an energiser for that last leg of the journey, sort of like how a mountain climber uses an oxygen mask, I’m unsure. This may never have been tried, and the number of would-be bodhisattvas in the world is very small anyway (only one in 100,000 have the potential, according to a Buddhist scholar). If you’ve progressed that long on the journey, I suspect the drug may not offer you anything you didn’t already know. Baba Ram Dass, whose life-story mirrors this very subject, once gave his enlightened Hindu master 900 micrograms of LSD, without any noticeable effect. Ultimately, my position is stated in the book: you either choose the path of psychedelics and its shamanic orientation, or you choose the path of the traditional Eastern student. The supposed overlap or similarity between the two is basically an old hippie myth, built on insufficient understanding of both psychedel fated ics and the religions of India.
SD: You give a nice compact history of psychedelic electronica, but mention that ambient techno was saddled with an “unhip New Age association.” However, I discovered quite a bit of synthesized-based ambient music in the early ’90s that I still enjoy today: early Kitaro, Aeoliah and others – sometimes labelled “mystical electronic music” or simply relaxation or meditation music. So how would a novice looking to begin building a psychedelic music library distinguish between authentic ambient techno / psychedelic ambient music and commercialised New Age silliness?
PL: This is a question I have discussed with New Age collectors. Basically there is no definite distinction between early ambient and ’70s-80s New Age music, and those interested in the styles seem to use the context and packaging to tell one from the other. If there’s talk of crystals, angels, and wizards, it’s New Age. If it seems more intellectual-cerebral, it’s ambient. But clearly the same piece of music could be claimed by both parties. The older New Age music forms a vast underground of interesting music, some of which is clearly as good as ’70s cosmic-ambient. It’s all about reflective, meditative moods and letting your mind wander. I wouldn’t underrate New Age music, and there is in fact a collector scene today specialised in digging up forgotten old New Age records and cassettes. The problem is more in the surrounding culture than in the music per se, as New Age as a socio-cultural phenomena seems to repel far more people than it attracts. So ambient music needs to steer clear of the association, even if the music in itself is not that dissimilar. An example of a very good ambient/New Age record is Wizards by J D Emmanuel (North Star Productions, 1982; reissued on Important, 2010).
SD: Is it possible that one could become addicted to psychedelics? As you discuss continued visits to the psychedelicised state and the rich rewards encountered thereunder, is there a danger that one might become addicted to the pleasures of the mind and devote as many waking hours as possible to re-entering Innerspace?
PL: Yes, I believe so, and I also believe that it is an issue that should be discussed more. There is no physical addiction or dependency whatsoever, but the risk for psychological attachment is definitely there. It’s like people who become obsessed with mountaineering or long-distance running – the experience is so special that it becomes your main, or only, concern. This is particularly true of the DMT drugs I believe, as the experience is shorter-lasting and does not leave the feeling of fatigue that LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline does. Then again, people have reported taking ayahuasca (where DMT is the main content) hundreds of time with no ill effects, and no craving to repeat it.
SD: Almost all of your quotes from DMT users’ trip reports mention the presence of “alien-like creatures”. They all seem very similar to alien abduction reports. Why do you think that is?
PL: There is a mysterious cluster that centres around DMT, and which covers at least three different experiences—the psychedelic trip, the alien abduction phenomena, and the near-death experience. DMT researchers such as Rick Strassman have been intrigued by the seeming connections and therefore broadened their research to include both abduction and near death states. This is interesting stuff, but also in a very embryonic stage, and I decided to only mention the research field in passing, since it is only tangential to the psychedelic culture.
SD: Could the psychedelicist’s brain be imprinted with images from the mass media reports of alien abductions and transpose these onto the images they see during their trip? Why do you think the images from these two “experiences” are almost identical?
PL: As to why people see insectile aliens on DMT – and very many of them do – this is part of the Unified Psychedelic Theory that I present in the final chapters of the book. When the psychedelic drug begins to affect the central nervous system, the brain is put on high alert, triggering ancient defence instincts. In order to alert the organism to the radical transformation going on due to the psychedelic drug, these mechanisms from older parts of the brain use powerful visionary signals. And the most effective visions are images that produce fear and horror in the subject, such as giant insects and space aliens. As I point out in the book, the monster from the Alien movies is exactly the kind of reptile/insect hybrid that people report from DMT trips, and of course the Alien xenomorph is considered one of the most perfectly terrifying film monsters created. Interestingly, it was designed by H R Giger, who is a self-admitted acidhead. Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers movie features a close variant on the same idea.
These iconic warning signs are culture-bound, and what is perceived as terrifying by Western man today is not what an aboriginal tribe member considers fearful or dangerous. I found it very interesting that the most revered animals in shamanic ayahuasca cultures in the Amazon are the snake, the jaguar, and the predatory bird. These are the three most dangerous animals in that environment, which is entirely in line with my theory that reactive parts of the brain uses “scare tactics” in order to alert the nervous system of the ongoing influx of neurochemical substances, such as DMT. To my knowledge, my theory is a new one, and while not easy to prove, I feel that there is a logic to it that explains something otherwise very hard to understand. As a third example, the most revered animal in European witchcraft lore was the wolf, which again is the most dangerous animal in this regional habitat. This pattern recurs over and over, and I believe it is the reptile and mammalian brains cooperating to create a sense of urgency in the subject in the best way they can. Of course, many DMT trippers do not become frightened by the 10-foot mantises but rather enthralled with them, but that’s more an expression of how jaded we have become from pop culture horror, and how hard it is to find truly scary visual icons.
SD: Aren’t psychedelics merely opening up parts of our mind that we may not have “visited” in baseline reality and, as such, wouldn’t the images have to be generated by our brains from previously encountered images, perhaps images that have disappeared into our subconscious to be freed by the psychedelic agent? If not, then from where would you say these images emanate? I can’t imagine there are unique images nestled in our brains that can only be exposed through hallucionogenics.
PL: One thing to be aware of is that a substantial part of the formless CEV (closed eye visuals) hallucinations are in fact neurological “noise” that comes primarily from the eye itself. As scientists have been able to show, the visions of tunnels, matrices, and other recurring shapes are in fact the eye looking at itself; the optical system is agitated by the psychedelic chemical and sends impressions of its own machinery to the brain. This is an odd, random effect of hallucinogens. Therefore I tend not to read much into the initial geometrical and colourful visual hallucinations. The inner visions do not really become meaningful until this noise is transformed into recognisable objects such as people, buildings, etc. Once that happens, you’re inside the trip for real. I’m quoting an old ayahuasca shaman in the book, saying that “If you’re only seeing geometric shapes, you are still way behind.”
As for the content-filled, meaningful interior hallucinations, the mystery to me is not where they come from, because we’ve been bombarded with literally billions of visual impressions since we were born, and our brain stores an astonishing number of images. The mystery to me is how and by whom images from our cerebral repository are selected and combined into the amazing stuff you will see once you get deeper into the trip. Because there is no way that your conscious mind is doing this—if it did, you wouldn’t be as stunned and surprised as you are by what you see. Another thing is the exceptional intelligence often demonstrated in the creation of these complex visual images, where you can suddenly be presented with powerful metaphors that are like the visual equivalent of Shakespeare; rich and multi-layered, but also with a vital message concerning yourself or your world. This is not Jungian archetypes but something much more dynamic and organic; I consider it the supra-conscious rather than subconscious. Just to be clear, as people often neglect to mention this: all I describe below occurs with eyes closed. The OEV (open eye visuals) are of a different order, though they too can become loaded with meaning in the higher realms.
SD: Is there a parallel universe that exists within each of us that can only be visited in the psychedelic state (excluding yoga, meditation, and other non-psychedelic agents)?
PL: I believe so, and it’s one of several controversial points I bring up in the book. I’ve never understood those who claimed that the “natural high” somehow replaced or surpassed the psychedelic high, because these different paths lead to pretty different places. There is a lot of stuff going on in a psychedelic trip that you cannot experience in any other way. Meditation is good, but the claim that 40 minutes of za-zen should somehow take the place of the exceptionally strange realms you visit on tryptamine drugs is fairly bizarre to me. Some of the effects these chemicals have on your brain are completely unique. I tend to agree with Terence McKenna when he said that all the Eastern meditation, natural paths and New Age stuff of the ’70s was mostly a reaction from people who couldn’t handle the psychedelic path anymore. In actuality, these things cannot and should not be compared. The link to shamanic cultures is more sensible, but of course a large number of the shamanic tribes use psychoactive drugs, so it’s certainly not a replacement of anything, but rather a contextualization of radical trip experiences. Meditation, as done in the style of the ancient Eastern systems, is a very useful, and potentially very powerful support in life. I have practiced meditation on and off for decades, and once I got into secret tantra techniques, a whole new realm of mental energy opened up. The tantric realm seemed so powerful that I actually had to put it on ice, and wait for a point in my life where I could approach it with care and focus. But even this tantric realm was not very much like a psychedelic experience; these are all different paths, different techniques, and not necessarily with the same end objectives.
SD: Some of your descriptions of ayahuasca/tryptamine trips sound like video games, what with all the guardians, and tests, and different levels. Are you aware of any enterprising tripsters who may have created such a game or tried to emulate the trip experience electronically?
PL: It is not as structured or predictably sequential as my model makes it seem. The model has been abstracted from masses of anecdotal data, and one should not expect one’s own trip to follow it like some kind of manual. At the same time, these things do occur; there are gatekeepers, there are higher levels to be reached, there are entities or voices who are benign, or malign, or ambiguous tricksters. This is what the shamans learn and know, and the gatekeeper phenomena in particular is well-known in the spiritual maps of shamanic systems around the world. In the future I believe we are going to produce models or charts of these psycho-spiritual “landscapes” which will outline the gates and levels not just as experiences, but also link them to specific activity in the brain, and specific levels of neurotransmitters.
But today this is all very tentative, and except for Terence McKenna’s generalised DMT trip (which he never put down in writing) I don’t think anyone has presented a field guide to these higher realms in the concrete manner that I do in the book. This is basically a new form of exploration, approaching Innerspace in the manner of Captain Cook or Roald Amundsen. I really wish more people would try and come up with these generalised models of the higher trip realms, but of course there are difficulties involved.
SD: You host a Psychedelia blog for the book. Is that the best place for interested parties to get in touch and discuss the book?
PL: Indeed it is. My Lysergia website has been going for almost 15 years, and I’ve also been running user chat forums in the past, but nowadays I use my two blogs both to present research material, and to encourage questions and debate. I’ll keep these going even if there isn’t much action, as the archival function is useful for myself.
SD: There’s so much information addressed in your book, I often thought I was reading a textbook for an academic class I just registered for! Have you considered (or has anyone approached you about) developing a class or workshop centred around your book – perhaps a symposium for attendees to discuss and compare trip reports, etc.
PL: That would have to take place in an extremely liberal country! Even slightest mention of LSD in a public situation will cause weird looks from people, still in 2013. Most likely people will write you off as some crazy drug casualty if you start to talk about this openly and in an enthusiastic way. Although the book doesn’t reflect much of it, I am fully aware of the social stigmata associated with psychedelic drugs, and my view is that whatever you’re doing, you are intelligent and careful about it. If you avoid provoking attention, and work inwards in the psychedelic tribe, you can keep going for decades. There is no need to involved people who don’t get it, and those who do get it will seek you out. I think one of Tim Leary’s best pieces of advise was “find your tribe”. Or like the Kak song (‘Trieulogy’) that I quote in the book, “You don’t have to play by society’s rules/You don’t have to go out and mix with the fools”. People in the ’60s failed to heed the solid advise from Leary and Kak, I believe today young psychedelicists are acting a lot smarter.
SD: So what’s next on your plate? Are there areas of research that you’d like to continue to explore that weren’t addressed in the book? Is a future volume, a sequel perhaps, in the works?
PL: I would like to treat myself to a long vacation, but as a writer-researcher things work in a different way. New and valuable info keeps pouring in, magazines get in touch and ask you if you can write something, and at any point some exciting avenue of research may suddenly open up. So while waiting for the idea for the next major writing project to present itself, minor writing projects keep me occupied. What I do know is that I am not finished with the “Psychedelia” concept, and there will undoubtedly be follow-ups and spinoffs. My distributor wants me to do a coffee-table book filled with images of rare psychedelic paraphernalia, and it’s a possibility even if I’m more oriented towards text and research rather than graphic design and layout. With Psychedelia I am expanding my scope from writing primarily about psychedelic pop culture to a situation where pretty much anything related to alternative spiritual traditions can be researched, analysed and presented, whether it’s one of Plato’s old dialogues, or a Shakespeare play, or shamanic rituals. I find this new-gained freedom very inspiring.
Patrick can be contacted at his Lysergia website, which also has extensive details about his many other projects, including an active blog for further discussions of his book.