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The Paleo Connection
Nothing like the word “psychedelic” triggers taboos and cliches, conjuring images of hippies dancing at a music festival, tripping on mushrooms. The psychedelic culture of the ’60s left on us an impression, both positive and negative, that still frames our understanding of psychoactive plants today. But those days were already the second wave of psychedelics—the first wave came long before that.
There is nothing new about human interest in perception-altering substances—a wide-ranging category, including not only psychedelics, but also alcohol, caffeine, coca, tobacco, cacao, etc. Evidently, we seem to enjoy mood- and perception-altering substances. Indeed, archeologists have dug up fossil evidence confirming the use of hallucinatory plants dating to at least 10,000 B.C. These archeological findings attest the first wave of psychedelic use, and some scientists believe ancient cave art was inspired by the ritualistic use of hallucinogenic plants.
Dr. Ronald Siegel, a mindfulness expert, claims that the human urge to intoxicate is so strong that it follows as the fourth most-primal urge after thirst, hunger, and sex. In an article on the current resurgence of psychedelics, Mark Sisson reminds us that, throughout human history, “all-night drumming-and-dancing sessions, extended fasts, exposure to extreme temperatures, steam lodges, week-long wilderness forays, and other rituals have all been used to produce visions and transcend normal waking consciousness.”
Currently, we are in the midst of a third psychedelic revolution in the West, even as these substances remain completely illegal in the United States. Though the recent opening of a legal ayahuasca (a South American psychedelic brew) church in Washington state confirms the increased acceptance of perception-bending substances. Peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus, is also legally used in the Native American Church.
Recent data indicates that the intake of these plants (and chemicals like LSD) is equal to usage levels of the 1960s. However, today’s third wave of psychedelic exploration is defined by a thoughtful and informed use for creative and therapeutic purposes, not just to “trip out.”
This third wave isn’t countercultural, but is deeply embedded in culture, in the tech industry specifically, where microdosing (taking very small amounts of substances) is a secret weapon that purportedly increases creativity. Popular personalities, from famed-podcaster Joe Rogan to author Tim Ferriss (The 4-Hour Workweek), tout the benefits of these experiences in a serious and thoughtful manner. “Getting high” isn’t the same as an interest in altered states of consciousness. People have varied reasons for wanting to use psychedelics, from healing trauma to increasing creativity and gaining a better understanding of the natural world.
What is a ‘Psychedelic’ Anyway?
Psychedelic plants produce changes in perception that result in visual or auditory hallucinations, enabling a temporary suspension of normal, waking consciousness. Each plant is unique in its use, in its effects, and in the duration of the experience. Such plants produce their special effects via the compound families of tryptamine, phenethylamine, and the beta-carboline.
Descriptions of psychedelic experiences include terms as disparate as luminous, geometric, terrifying, unifying, revealing, mortifying, and reassuring. The temporary psychedelic-enabled change in consciousness varies widely, depending on the plant, dose, culture, psychology, physiology, expectation, and setting.
Ancient Social Constructs
Specific hallucinatory plants were always used within a particular social culture. In Siberia and northern Europe, for example, psychedelic amanita mushrooms were used in spiritual ceremony under the care of a shaman (a spiritual guide). Though not always, the shaman was often the one to use the plants on behalf of the community’s members.
Along the Amazon, shamans used a psychoactive snuff for thousands of years (dated to at least 5,000 B.C.), before ayahuasca made its debut. Often within a ceremonial context, the shaman’s role was to enter a trance and travel through the spirit world. The specific trainings, rituals, and beliefs of the shaman (and the community at large) were a protection for problems that might be encountered along the psychedelic journey.
Modern culture has lost touch with these past rituals, and has forgotten preparation methods for these plant journeys. As such, each year thousands of Western people travel to South America to take part in ayahuasca rituals with Amazonian shamans. For many of these adventurous soul, such trips are enlightening. Unfortunately, a few also have psychological breaks, and others still take months to fully recover. And a few experience-seekers have even died.
Though for the most part psychedelic tourism infuses much-needed money into poor areas of the world, the donors do so with little understanding of the culture they are visiting. Predictably, problems arise from cultural and spiritual misunderstandings.
As Westerners, we generally do not grow up acknowledging alternative dimensions, spirit beings, or plant entities. Many people who ingest ayahuasca meet a female entity, often referred to as “Mother Aya,” which natives believe is the actual spirit of the plant. A belief that couldn’t be further from the typical Western belief system—and perhaps this stark clash in worldviews is exactly why we are so attracted to psychedelics; substances that reveal a direct experience of the natural and unseen world that our modern culture so aggressively disconnects with.
Physical, Mental, Emotional—Paleo Past and Present
Paleo theory suggests that we haven’t changed much compared to our ancestors, which is why we modern cave-people try to live in a way that resonates with the Paleolithic past. However, our built and cultural environments still exert a massive influence on us. While there is yet no scientific proof suggesting this, it is reasonable to assume that our experiences of psychedelics are qualitatively different than those of our ancestors—just consider that lowered vitamin D levels, overexposure to electromagnetic fields, heightened levels of chemicals in the blood (like BPA), and changes in our gut biome could all affect the nature of a psychedelic experience.
Consider also that what we watch in movies and on television, and much what we encounter in our daily life, all affects our construct of reality, and this reality remains at the forefront during hallucinogenic experiences. In the past, were psychedelic journeys maybe easier to integrate because the reality-matrix of earlier civilizations was simpler? We simply do not know—though it is tempting to speculate.
Cautious and Purposeful Use
Thanks to the incontestable nature of the scientific method, we can today determine the benefits and risks of psychedelic plants with tremendous accuracy. If, for example, psilocybin mushrooms are effective in curbing alcohol addiction, as the Heffter Research Institute demonstrated, we can indeed use this information to help those suffering.
Other researches reveal low-risk and high-reward outcomes from psychedelic therapy for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and psycho-spiritual issues (like the fear of death).
Make no mistake, psychedelic therapy is a far cry from individual or shaman-guided use. Modern therapies are highly structured, have long follow-up periods, and the research teams are knowledgeable about the substances and human behaviors. The disadvantage of primitive psychedelic therapy is that anyone can call themselves a shaman (or guide, or facilitator). And when people are willing to pay for a night of journeying, there is no doubt that sometimes unprepared and ignorant people will be leading the “ceremony.”
That said, most of our understanding of psychedelic experience comes from outside formal settings. In the online blog Reality Sandwich, Patrick Dunn observed, “it must be acknowledged that the vast majority of successful psychedelic experimentation throughout human history has been carried out independent of scientific, medical, and state oversight.”
Before setting out on a psychedelic voyage, a careful consideration of your personal purpose and drive is critical. There are so many effective nonpsychedelic interventions that can help alleviate many health and psychological issues. Luckily, the Paleo community knows this!
Increased sunlight exposure, dietary changes, more-natural movement outside, and less stress—all these positive adjustments offer powerful solutions to real problems. And altered states are within reach via meditation, extended time outside, and intense physical activity. Stephan Beyer, author of Singing to the Plants, warns that many Westerners want “a neon-pink buffalo” experience when they choose to take psychedelics.
The psychological work required to weave together psychedelic experiences can be intense. The pink-neon-buffalo vision might leave you feeling vulnerable and unstable for some period of time. Then again, even a blissful journey can be hard to integrate back into your regular routine.
However, seasoned psychonauts (recurrent psychedelic travelers) will say there are no bad trips, that it’s all in the integration process. In the right setting with supportive people, a scary experience can be helpful to personal growth. Psychedelics hold a mysterious power to assist us along our human journey, and with reverence, preparation, and care, we too can discover our human potential through these magical plants.
- Beyer, S. Singing to the Plants (2012). Retrieved from: singingtotheplants.com/2012/04/on-origins-of-ayahuasca.
- Carhart-Harris, R. “How psilocybin works: Addition by subtraction” (2013). Retrieved from: psychedelicfrontier.com/how-psilocybin-works-addition-by-subtraction.
- Dunn, P. “Psychiatric power and taboo in modern psychedelia” (2013). Retrieved from: realitysandwich.com/159327/psychiatric_power_taboo_psychedelia.
- Fontanilla, et al. “The hallucinogen N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is an endogenous sigma-1 receptor regulator.” Science 13.323 (2009): 934-7.
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- Heffter Research Institute. “Psilocybin in the treatment of alcoholism” (2016).
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- Siegel, Z. “America’s first legal ayahuasca ‘church’.” The Daily Beast (2015). Retrieved from: thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/12/07/america-s-first-legal-ayahuasca-church.html.
- Sisson, M. “Psychedelics: A new medical frontier?” Mark’s Daily Apple (2015): Retrieved from: marksdailyapple.com/psychedelics-a-new-medical-frontier/#axzz416eWEAc1.
- University of Cambridge. “The medical history of psychedelic drugs.” The Department of History and Philosophy of Science (2007). Retrieved from: http://psychedelic.nfshost.com/history_of_psychedelics.pdf.
- Yakowicz, W. “Silicon Valley’s best kept secret: Psychedelics.” Inc. Magazine (2015). Retrieved from: inc.com/will-yakowicz/entrepreneurs-use-lsd-psilocybin-to-boost-creativity.html.