Re-membering the Sacred> by ls

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*Re-membering: to consciously reinvest a known concept with vital relevance and to relate our life experiences thereto, such that the concept may be powerful to effect change in our world.Change one's worldview to change the world.

Transformational spirituality has been a popular meme since the mid-twentieth century. In Australian culture people have been thinking about the meme of self transformation and have continued to identify with cultural movements which are expressive of this direction, and which affirm that this potential exists for all. People of the Woodstock generation dancing with acid house ravers. The smiley face an enduring image, augmented in the nineties by an open third eye: evolution. Yet how great a gulf in cultural significance between the traditional perspective upon entheogens (plants that "awaken the divinity within") and the Western appreciation of their use! In the West, the entheogenic experience turns upon a transaction, which goes forward at the desire and risk of the buyer. In a traditional society the Shaman governs access to entheogens on the basis of need; here in the West the principal question is, "Do you have the cash?" There, entheogens are understood as a medicine - here, people are buying a product, a commodity.

Many in the West may only look upon the entheogenic cultures that the West has encountered and subjugated - while such cultures yet remain, that is - and dream that such a heritage of integrated understanding were their birthright also. However, even though many people are very interested in the possibility of personal transformation, the rigors of the traditional Shamanic paths put them beyond the serious consideration of most. Not only do most find the revelation of what a commitment to such a path actually entails confronting; the fact is that, in the main, people prefer to stick with what they know.

A young man once asked me, "What on earth is the relevance of a South American ayahuasca ceremony to a white boy from Sydney's inner west? To me it's very simple: you put the stuff in your head and then watch it fly away... after all it's just a drug, right?" To this twenty-something the concept of explicitly ritualising the process of taking a drug was an example of pure superstition with no possible validity whatsoever. Drugs are chemicals with molecular structures that engage the receptors of the human brain - that's how they work. They work regardless of what gods the human imagines in the sky beyond the stars, which are not ancestors' spirits but very distant thermonuclear reactions. The concept that there may be something to be gained by taking a conscious, or spiritual, approach to the matter clearly cut no ice with him - to him, chemicals are for fun and entheogenic reports are interesting only from the perspective of becoming better informed about new substances, personal safety and the law. To his way of thinking the state's interest in controlling substances is for the primary purpose of outwardly defending the hypocrisies of the WASP mentality while actually establishing the conditions under which street prices, and the graft associated therewith, might be pushed up. He was pro-legalisation because he believed it a victimless crime in the first place and in the second place he believed that the price, and the related crime statistics, would fall as a result.

Between the poles of the avowedly initiatory and the secular recreational falls the syncretic approach. In this your relationship with plants changes through your experiences with them, finally maturing to the point where some acknowledge them as teachers and the substances they contain as sacraments, which in turn leads the participant to use rituals of their own making to recognise and honour the plant spirits. Creativity is a means by which this can be explored: the art you produce on the basis of the visions becomes a vital link between you and the plant spirit, and this is one way for the individual to "bring to earth" the insight and exaltation they have gained. Simple rituals can employ elements drawn from a variety of sources: mysticism, Shamanic traditions, Western magickal techniques, Hermeticism - and be brought together by the individual as they see fit, with the intention of consciously working with the entheogen.

The definition of entheogen is that it "awakens the divinity within", and in this regard it is not limited to naturally occurring substances at all - instance the examples of LSD and Ecstasy. However, most people are predisposed to viewing the plant entheogen as the more serious, or genuinely spiritual, avenue of inquiry and the chemical creation as recreational. Plant entheogens are surrounded by centuries of human use, guided and guarded by initiated Shamanic tradition, wherein there is no doubt that the entheogen is a sacred medicine and that some are called by the plant to become, themselves, initiated guardians of this sacred tradition. The degree of social integration apparent in such communities is impressive, wherein it is assumed that a person is a part of a greater whole, where spirituality affirms the unity of all things and is seen to pervade every aspect of the individual's world. It is easy to see that the example of traditional usage would impart to plant entheogens a strong spiritual aura.

By contrast, the artificial entheogens is purely a Western concoction, a by-product, if you will, of scientific analysis. In the West, chemical compounds are valued for their objective practical applications; they are not attributed the special significance of being manifestations of the divine. Though the West may pride itself on its achievements in the cause of material science, and rightly trumpets the accuracy of the models it has created, no one is venturing an opinion as to what these models actually depict beyond relationships between known things. Molecules are, perhaps, the material building blocks of a distant God - but this is something left very much to the individual to consider privately. As we cannot prove the reality of the unmanifest, orthodox Western culture says nothing definitive of it - at the edge of the world map of materialist philosophers, the words "here be dragons" might be appended.

In other cultures there is no doubt that unseen dimensions exist which interpenetrate the mundane world, or that a Shaman may enter these regions, wherefrom he may manipulate events on this side of the veil. Standing "between the worlds", the Shaman is both greatly honoured and greatly feared, for his knowledge not only enables him the power to heal, it also grants him the power to harm through sorcery and witchcraft. People would not hesitate to approach the local Shaman for healings. By use of plant entheogens he is enabled to perceive sickness in the bodies of the afflicted (for this reason he is also referred to as the "Glass Man") and, having identified the cause, treats it by sucking the sickness from the afflicted person's fingertips and then vomiting it forth. On the other hand, the Shaman faces the real danger of being accused of sorcery by superstitious people from surrounding communities, a charge which might result in his murder. The accusation of sorcery might follow should women of a neighbouring village suffer stillbirth, or general sickness overtake a community. The Shaman's survival depends largely on him maintaining a good reputation in his local community.

In traditional communities the entheogen occupies a known place in the collective worldview; it has a purpose and is not available unless the individual is in need, or demonstrates the characteristics that alert guardians of the tradition to their being another potential Shaman. It is a fact that the majority of people in the West are introduced to entheogens through recreational use, that is, vicariously. Of these, some number perseveres, and in the course of their recreational use they gather experience that transforms their attitude to the practice. They begin to see the experiences as a spiritualising influence in their lives and desire to acknowledge this deeper relationship by what means they may.

It is also a fact that not every psychedelic experience will be a deeply spiritual experience. For all the effort one might expend in creating circumstances conducive to the "spiritual" trip, there is no guarantee that such a trip will follow, nor that, were it to do so, it would necessarily be a "nice" experience. Somewhat like the converts to a hair product, the advocates of a spiritual high are left to say, "Well, it may not happen the first, or even the fiftieth, time, but it will happen..." What is being spoken of, really, is the will to allow the possibility that an entheogen might catalyse personal development: nothing more.

One common metaphor has been that the entheogen flies you to the mountain and you stay awhile, you get your happy snaps then it brings you back, which the classicist mind would say is a different thing entirely to endeavouring to live at those heights and prospecting the climb. To which the psychonaut might well add: yes, nor would my climbing seem worthwhile had I not visited their heights - spiritual epiphanies are pretty few and far between here on the streets, it has to be admitted. If you can get it from the pulpit or the press you're doing well; I just can't remember the last time a clerical outburst moved me that way, in such a way as to be reaffirmed in my inner being of the divine harmony of all things, and to be thereafter transformed in life.

But read any of the burgeoning literature available on the impact of psychedelics and you will see such statements being made, notably in connection with DMT. That the mundane and the spiritual are joined in one's perception, that thereby one perceives the sacred nature of all things and learns about oneself thereby - this is why we call them entheogens but know them as sacraments. Yes, there is more to life than meets the eye. Yes, there is a palpable benefit to be gained. Yes, this is a valid line of inquiry. Ultimately those who know, know, while those who don't look on in bemusement.


"We wanna be free - and we wanna get loaded!" (Primal Scream/Screamadelica)


There is a clear consensus that the use of entheogens should be decriminalised at least, preferably legalised, and their abuse considered a medical matter. In the main, people would like to go in search of their ultimate high by their own ingenium and without interference; they would like to be informed but not advised, they would like their experience to be respected as being either recreational or spiritual as they elect, sans guidance, interpretation or judgement by others. Though ideas such as personal transformation and spiritual growth have achieved great currency in the marketplace, and while many see entheogens as a potential path to spiritual awakening, the fact is that most people are burdened by secular materialism to which the West has defaulted after faith, and harbour doubt about the validity of the spiritual quest even as they struggle with the drive to express it.

People are understandably reticent to countenance striking out alone and initiating a practice without an established framework of milestones and guidance. The testimony of those who have gone into traditional entheogenic cultures is a reassuring affirmation of the beneficent power of entheogens in those cultures, certainly, but those cultures are a world away from the suburbs. Yet there is a genuine entheogenic culture developing in the West. It is coalescing around the precedent and experience of the pioneers of the sixties and it is struggling to engage both a community health problem and the need to re-educate. While the entheogenic experience has the power to heal, in our culture it has attracted opprobrium through the prejudice of a society that makes much of the casualties that have occurred through ignorant misuse in the psychedelic community. People are burning themselves out through being misinformed, through failing to recognise excess in their practice, or through failing to make the connection with spirituality at all and being blown away when their number comes up.

We who advocate the entheogenic experience have a responsibility to convey not merely that the experience is positive, that it is a valid direction for human inquiry and that it is vital that this inquiry be conducted; we must also address the pitfalls. As we are agreed that this inquiry has spiritual dimensions we should address the lessons of our spiritual traditions for whatever practical methods and salutary admonishments they may hold, which might potentially represent preventative medicines, both physical and psychological, for anyone setting out on the journey. Advocates of entheogens struggle against the perception of being merely hedonistic adventurers; of irresponsibly hoping to "get enlightened" without raising a sweat. What we do is persistently and crudely portrayed simply as taking drugs and abusing ourselves, whereas in fact what we are interested in is exploring consciousness for the reward of insight.

The Bush administration is ramping up its "War on Drugs" and has cracked down even harder on anyone associated with scheduled substances. The prohibition policy has been demonstrated to be a costly and ineffective failure, and yet scarcely a month passes without the scheduling of yet more. Thousands of innocent people across America are being imprisoned, deprived of their livelihoods and disenfranchised of the right to vote, for a practice that has been a cornerstone of human evolution since the Stone Age. Around the world, and often at the threat of loss of trade or humanitarian aid, governments are falling in line with Washington and are doing their bit for the "War on Drugs". The drug cartels and the private corrective services companies, meanwhile, enjoy business as usual and increased profit. Is there something wrong with this picture? Why is the establishment not addressing this with a health and education strategy?

Entheogens are so named for their capacity to open the mind to deeper awareness, to catalyse new perspectives of what it means to be human, to awaken the divinity within. This experience is so attractive precisely because it offers the confirmation of what is normally only a hopeful dream: the knowledge that life is meaningful in ways far beyond those apparent to us in mundane consciousness. The entheogen gives this knowledge directly, and though we inevitably must return to our normal state we do so with the memory of having transcended its bounds. We have our connection with the sacred re-membered within us. In identifying what is sacred to them, a person wakes an inner strength from which to judge and act. They establish the foundation upon which the frames of character and mind may evolve, the necessary internal points of reference by which experiences gain meaningful relativity, and discrimination develops. The person who has developed in faithful harmony with their inner strength, who resists the myriad temptations to defer or renege its directives, becomes accustomed to independence and is their own creature. This strength is won through a living connection with meaning - without which there seems little reason not to be a "clockwork orange".

The West needs its own equivalent of the Shaman, but in typically hypocritical fashion the establishment would prefer to kill the messenger than hear the message. The entheogenic movement is being hounded and persecuted by a pig-ignorant and profoundly frightened "moral majority", who, being in fact neither moral nor in the majority, see the changes that the entheogenic renaissance heralds as a threat and resort to draconian measures to hold the tide back. What are they so frightened of?

Maybe it is not so hard to see why the orthodoxy has opted to shoot the messenger: entheogens have contributed to the rise of a spirituality that stands upon direct experience and rejects dispensation, and which therefore inherently contradicts the very basis upon which much of the establishment stands. Would it be too long a bow to draw to suggest that, were the people's sacred connection re-membered to them, they would simply walk away? Perhaps. At the least, re-memberance is a seed of the greater transformation we would all see in trying to heal the culture of our times.