Thursday, September 24, 2015

Entheogens and Cultural Taboos: Part One

I have been thinking about this topic for many a week, and feel a bit overwhelmed with the amount of information, as well as with the intensity of my own emotional reaction to what I am reading.  I have a feeling this particular blog will be a two-parter, at the very least.

I refer the reader to my blog post from 6/4, "Forward Part 2: Medicines v. Drugs."  There I introduced the reader to this subject as follows:

    To the Western person who has heard the calling to participate in a relationship with these
    medicines - such as myself - what I have found on the one hand is profound healing, the clearing 
    of generational dysfunctional patters, an expansion of my consciousness and ability to be more
    fully present, the evolution of my capacity to feel joy, a permanent and evolving lightening of my
    vibration, and a deeper connection to God.  On the other hand I have found deep-seated fear,
    prejudice, judgment, misunderstanding, suspicion, and misinformation about these medicines.
    Because they have the power to alter our consciousness, they have been labeled psychoactive or
    psychedelic drugs, the use of which is a crime (a felony), as these labels classify these sacred
    medicines as Schedule One controlled substances, the same category as heroin and crack cocaine.
    This is, simply put, a grievous error caused by ignorance."

I am still struggling with my reactionary emotions around this topic.  I want everyone to wake up - NOW - and want the use of these medicines for the benefit of humanity and all life on this planet to be acknowledged a sovereign right.  I do see the tide turning, however.  The number of books available on this subject is astounding (see DMT Nexus at for a list of references); websites like Psychedelic Parenting, Erowid, the Lycaeum and conferences such as the Women's Visionary Congress, the Spirit Plant Medicine Conference, and more are becoming more and more common.  Psychedelic research has opened back up again, and new discoveries in treating various conditions,  as well as help for terminal patients in overcoming the anxiety of facing death - all of these reports are promises of a shift in the cultural perceptions of entheogens.  As an (impatient) Aries woman, though, this change is not happening fast enough!

I have been reading the thoughts of many of the leaders in the movement to reframe thinking around the use of entheogens in our culture.  But before getting into that, I want to address WHY these substances that alter our consciousness in a certain way are considered so dangerous: the roots of the taboos around the use of entheogens.  

As noted in previous blogs, the war on drugs is selective: there are many substances - and behaviors - that could (should?) be classified as Schedule One, but which are not.  Television, computer gaming, internet porn, sugar, and more... all of these things alter our brain chemistry, have a high potential for addiction, and can cause the user serious harm.   But the government does not feel the need to regulate their use.  Why then do this to entheogens?  Why vilify these plant medicines?  Why label them 'drugs' when so many cultures throughout humanity's history have revered them as sacred?  Why treat humanity as incapable of regulating their personal use of entheogens, when these substances have shown minimal to no potential for abuse?

The key to this prejudice lies in the effects: entheogens allow the user the possibility of a direct experience of the spiritual.  They can also bring a person into the mystical "unitive state," where it is possible to experience a direct knowing of the interconnectedness of all life.  This often results in a complete reexamination of values and a major restructuring in many areas of life, honing things down to what is true and essential, letting go of ego-based desires, and potentially 'upsetting the apple cart' of a person's life in many ways.  Of course this is threatening to the status quo!  
Terence McKenna had this to say on the subject:

"Where the mis-understanding comes is with the label - these are "drugs," and "drug" is a red-flag word. We are hysterical over the subject of drugs. Our whole society seems to be dissolving under the onslaught of criminally syndicated drug distribution systems. What we are going to have to do if we are to come to terms with this is to become a little more sophisticated in our definitions. I believe that what we really object to about "drugs" is that we are alarmed by unexamined, obsessive, self-destructive behavior. When we see someone acting in this way we draw back. That is what addiction to a drug such as cocaine or morphine results in. However, psychedelics actually break habits and patterns of thought. They actually cause individuals to inspect the structures of their lives and make judgements about them.... they inspire examination of values, and that is the most corrosive thing that can happen.... I believe that a reasonable definition of drugs would have us legalize psilocybin and outlaw television! (1)

This brings up a good point about intentions, or why take an entheogen in the first place?  In researcher terminology, this is part of what is called the 'set,' as a person's reasons for taking one of these substances very much has to do with what they expect will happen when they do.  If we are doing something for recreation, or to escape from our reality and/or avoid the way we are feeling, then, as I said in that second blog, we are indulging in drug usage - even if it is flopping on the couch with a pint of Ben and Jerry's and binge-watching a TV series. But choosing to ingest an entheogen may have a different motivation behind it entirely.  As John McGraw writes in Brain and Belief: An Exploration of the Human Soul (2): "The history of many of these substances is not one of abuse and recreation, as we have seen in our own modern times,  The history of entheogens finds them as essential sacraments in a variety of ancient religious traditions... To decry these items as illicit, mind-bending drugs is to mistake their cultural importance and impose a modern stereotype upon ancient practices." (p. 207)

I know in my own spiritual culture, the intention behind ingesting the medicine is to connect with the Divine Spirit of God and to be "better" as a result.  In the culture of the NAC meetings I have attended, they take the medicine to connect with God and to pray for and lend support to the purpose of the one who is calling the prayer meeting.

But back to the effects of taking entheogens.  In common with many young people, I started on this path taking an entheogen recreationally - going to a concert (the Grateful Dead - what else?) and taking LSD, purely for fun.  What I received out of the experience was profoundly more than just fun, however.  That first time, dancing with thousands of other kids to music that I loved, I had an experience of losing my ego's obsessive fixation on what other people think about me.  I became free of my own inner critic, for the first time in my life.  My spirit experienced freedom from the horrible self-image and crippling self-doubt I normally experienced: combined with free-form movement (dance), and a community of other people whom I knew could understand what was happening to me, it was understandably a huge awakening and precipitated the start of an amazing inner transformation in my life.

(Disclaimer: I am not proposing that everyone go out and dose at a concert!  It is a very uncertain thing to do, and in my younger years I had my fair share of really 'bad' trips, too.  In fact, I only took LSD until the age of 24, and quit altogether after a particularly horrendous experience.  I do not recommend that anyone follow anyone else's lead on the matter of whether or not to take an entheogen or psychoactive substance.  It is a personal decision and when asked I always refer to the person's own intuitive capacity to answer that question.  Our own spirits and bodies know what we need - we just have to listen!)

Direct Spiritual Experience and the Law

I have some more information to add to the legal discussion of some of the August posts.  Basically what I have read concerns the wording and intention of the First Amendment, what it sets out to protect and what it actually does protect in terms of our religious freedoms.  The text reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."  This amendment was originally created to protect people from being forced to belong to a particular religion (as had been the case in some European countries), and to protect people's right to practice their chosen religion.  Unfortunately it does not define what a religion is, per se, and it also does not protect a person's pursuit of their own spiritual path, outside of an organized religion.  This rather large grey area is at the heart of the legal issue around entheogenic use in this country.

Martin Ball, one of my personal heroes in this movement, has written an amazing article on this subject. (3)  He writes, "When one considers the legal issues surrounding the sacramental use of entheogens, it is easy to see that the significance of cultivating direct spiritual experience is nowhere taken into consideration.  Rather, we are confronted with issues of "belief" and "practice," and rather narrow definitions of what characterizes freedom in the pursuit of a religious or spiritual practice." 

However, in the Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith case (1990), a man was denied unemployment benefits after being fired for using peyote as part of a NAC (Native American Church) ceremony because this violated the company's drug policy and the law.  The local court found in favor of the employer, and so did the supreme court.  Justice Scalia, who wrote the Court opinion, basically said that if an individual were free to pursue his or her religion irregardless of existing laws, anarchy would be the most likely result.  This decision of course precipitated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and there is (a lot) more to say on the subject, but that will wait until next week.

I also love what Terence McKenna had to say on the subject:

"Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are enshrined in the Constitution of the United States as inalienable rights. If the pursuit of happiness does not cover the psychedelic quest for enlightenment, then I don't know what it can mean."(1)

In closing - for now - I want to reprint this beautiful vision from Martin Ball, in the hopes that one day soon, each person's sovereign choice in these matters will be honored.

The Universal Declaration of the Human Right to Direct Spiritual Experience
by Martin Ball (3)

We recognize the following:

Human beings are innately spiritual. The human quest for spiritual meaning and experience is fundamental to the human experience. Personal spiritual experience is furthermore understood to be one of the most intimate aspects of person’s identity, sense of self, and worldview.

While the human quest for spiritual meaning and experience can be institutionalized through the formation and continuation of religious traditions, the drive for spiritual meaning and experience is not limited to religious activity or membership per se.

Religious practice and membership is not identical to spiritual experience. Religion, as a social institution, provides opportunity for like-minded people to gather together in groups to collectively express their beliefs in the context of shared practices. Religion provides structures of ritual, ceremony, religious teachings, and a community of similarly-oriented individuals. Within the context of a religion, persons may be afforded the opportunity for direct spiritual experience, but this is not necessarily the case. As direct spiritual experience is primarily an individual matter, the locus of spiritual experience is necessarily the individual, and not a religious tradition or institution.
While religious membership and activity is universally recognized as a fundamental human right and is protected by law, individual pursuit of spiritual experiences has not been afforded the same legal protections. This act seeks to correct this omission from the list of universal human rights.
Because the locus of direct spiritual experience is the individual, protections for individual spiritual experience must be afforded directly to individuals, rather than to the institutions in which they practice. As a result, protection for direct spiritual experience is not limited to individuals who are members of religious traditions, but extend equally to all individuals, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.

All practices that contribute to an individual’s cultivation of direct spiritual experience are hereby affirmed to be protected by international laws recognizing universal human rights, with the condition that such practices do not violate any other universally recognized human rights of other persons, such as the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

In recognition of this universal human right to direct spiritual experience, it is hereby decreed that no government shall persecute or punish any individual who chooses to pursue the cultivation of direct spiritual experience in a manner that is respectful of the human rights of others.

(2) McGraw, John.  Brain & Belief: An Exploration of the Human Soul. Ageis Press, Del Mar, CA.  2004.  Excerpt found at
(3) Ball, Martin.  "Entheogenic Spirituality as a Human Right." Reality Sandwich,

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