Conference Report:: Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics

October 1st, 2010

psychedelichorizons.jpg

Several hundred people gathered for the 4th annual Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics conference at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South on September 24-26.

This conference surveys the current research and social issues in the field of psychedelics. Readings by John Perry Barlow from Birth of a Psychedelic Culture and Don Lattin, author of The Harvard Psychedelic Club, provided historical context and Cosmo D set the atmosphere with a performance of textured cello improvisation over original electronic rhythms to open the weekend.

Why has psychedelic research been discriminated against in academia? Dr. Torsten Passie took us through the reasons. He showed slides of tribal people lying back all together with their eyes closed: not very productive! A Western capitalist worldview, which requires relations with nature to be utilitarian and depth of feeling to be kept private is not likely to embrace the potential value of trance states, the sharing of dreams, or the hallucinogenic experience.

Furthermore, ecstatic experience through psychedelics can engender direct, unmediated experience of the divine in oneself and in all of nature. This does not comport particularly well with the teachings of the Christian church, which holds forth that each and every one of us needs Jesus Christ to mediate our salvation.

Psychedelics deconceptualize and deconstruct entrenched value systems and, therefore, authority over truth is destabilized. So let's add that those who socially engineer and control populations don’t much care for that sort of thing. It becomes a real problem for those in power when people tap into a larger, more satisfying and holistic sense of reality, endemic to their own true natures, accessed intuitively.

Dr. Passie does not expect interest in psychedelics to spread beyond a small, secret society in the foreseeable future.

Dr. Jeffrey Guss, who heads up a current study at NYU on psychedelics in the reduction of cancer anxiety with very positive psychospiritual results, agrees with Dr. Passie that psychedelics will not become mainstream in society and he doesn’t believe that they should, that they are not for everyone.

But, standing in disagreement with these men on this point is independent Manhattan and Sag Harbor-based psychologist in private practice, Neal Goldsmith, PhD. Along with organizer Kevin Balktic, Dr. Goldsmith facilitates the conference. His sense is that to move into an age beyond post-modernism, one integrating the Cartesian split, psychedelics may play an important role.

He speaks of his own transformation through psychedelic experiences and how it altered his personality theory and views on personal growth and change. He describes a step-wise developmental process with dramatic growth to a new level of development after periods on a plateau. In essence, he says the issue is not to change a pathology, but to form genuine trusting relationships through which his clients can re-identify with their core selves. The person you were born, before you “punted” to a compensatory Plan B, personality, to get by in early childhood, is who you really are. Healing is getting back to that core self.

He's seen that transformative developmental change takes a long time and is very difficult to sustain in this culture. A combination of transcendent and cathartic approaches are most effective, and in this, psychedelics can be catalysts to insight, although insight alone, he says, only goes so far.

The large-scale collective process of what he calls psyche-ology, the study and healing of soul, is really concerned now with successfully joining mechanistic, scientific and technological knowledge with the realities of human psychosocial needs.

Eric Davis, a current PhD candidate, author, speaker and radio host discussed inner and outer Cartesian dualities by way of a metaphor, a mobius strip on which the material at some point turns over into the spiritual, the secular into the sacred and vice versa, in a flow.

There is a hunger in our culture (with its resistance to all things mystical) for the ritual and ceremonial context in which the hallucinogen Ayahuasca is taken by tribal peoples from the rain forests of South America; and this is likely why Ayahuasca has become so popular in North America in recent years.

Davis also pointed to Roland Griffiths’ 2008 Johns Hopkins study which proved that the use of psychedelics gives rise to religious experience (“No shit, Sherlock,” he said, “we knew that!”) And so the open question is: what does a secular, materialistic research model do with this scientific confirmation? And does moving the psychedelic experience into the psychopharmaceutical, clinical environment of the lab, perhaps diminish its potential for healing self and society?

The scientific approach is valuable, Davis upholds, because of the nagging questions it prompts us to ask about the brain. For instance, if you’re going to coin terms like “neurotheology” as a way to account for the experience of God, then you must also account for déjà vu, clairvoyance, and many other experiences of the mind.

For scientists to be seriously engaged in psychedelic research they eventually must take the psychedelics themselves. And that could just stimulate changes in the scientific approach itself. We may find ourselves up against our culture’s addictions to limiting ideas.

Psychedelic use for the treatment of addiction was reported on by researchers Matthew Johnson and Mary Cosimano of Johns Hopkins University who are currently investigating psilocybin in the treatment of nicotine dependence.

Most striking was the presentation by Clare Wilkins, director of Pangea Biomedics in Tijuana, Mexico on the remarkable properties of Ibogaine, a hallucinogenic root from Gabon, Africa that reverses addictions to opiates; such as heroine and methadone, as well as to cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol, nicotine, and all manner of addictive behaviors and neurotic thoughts.

Ninety-two percent of clients who enter the clinic leave free of their chemical dependency, and without any withdrawal symptoms. Eighteen percent are still living without their drug of choice after six months, and this is a remarkable liberation rate. The hallucinogen gives addicts a real chance at choice. While exactly how ibogaine works is still unknown, there is clearly repair to brain receptors and an adjustment in neurochemistry.

She describes Ibogaine as a “relationship interrupter,” accomplishing “shame washing, empowerment, and the reawakening of the body’s intelligence.” Ibogaine “enables you to look at your life and eliminate anything that is not serving you.” Self-harm becomes self-care. “You fall back in love with yourself, with others and with life. It brings love back into the equation.”

Several of the non-academic speakers praised visionary experience and its influence on art, music, fashion, film, eco-consciousness and the integration of Eastern and Western mysticism. Annie Oak spoke about her grant-making organization, the Women’s Visionary Congress, and how this multigenerational community of “psychedelic women” support one another in their ongoing catalytic work as artists, healers, activists and visionaries.

But some brought up the dark side and limitations of psychedelics. Associate producer of the annual Bioneers conference, J.P. Harpignies, reminded us that in the 60s many a psych-ward and hospital was packed with LSD casualties. And poet, Dale Pendell, while acknowledging that we have yet to complete the psychedelic revolution, that the Earth is in need of a deep and radical cure, also cautioned us to consider that psychedelics are not effective on narcissism. In fact, with their tendency to stimulate messianic fantasies in some people, psychedelics may have contributed to the rapid rise of Me-ism in society.

Jill Harris of the Drug Policy Alliance urged the Horizons audience to come out about their psychedelic experiences, to break the taboo and share stories. “They have been important to us; they have mattered.” Let’s be vocal about how transformative these drugs can be and about the fact that prohibition doesn’t work. At the 40th anniversary of the War on Drugs, “it’s time to set the exit strategy.”

Heading home through Washington Square park at twilight, the great stone arch with its bold, engraved quotation was all lit up:

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.”

Washington spoke those words to inspire his delegates to aim high in the writing of the Constitution of the United States. It was crafted, in this spirit, over the next 17 weeks.

And I thought, yes, here it is, the time Washington expected for the wise and honest to repair to those standards. And it will be, indeed, up to the wise and the honest to do the job.

“There are methods for changing social policies,” Neal Goldsmith tells us, “and we’ve got to power through, shoulder to the wheel, and do the work.”

©2010 Jari Chevalier

  • Tim Dalton

    Hi Jari,

    I echo the “we already knew that”. I’ve got about 200+ trips under my scalp, and lots of stories.

    Oct 5, 2010 at 12:59 am