For the serious-minded they are now entheogens; over a hundred years ago in the quasi-scientifically curious Western world there was nitrous oxide and opium, followed by mescaline and sacramental mushrooms in early C20. The bomb really dropped 75 years ago with Albert Hoffman synthesizing LSD, since when new variations on a theme keep evolving. In the present day questers can choose from a smorgasbord including ecstasy MDMA, STP and so on, so called ‘party’ drugs. The term entheogen is now used to refer to any psychoactive substances when used more intellectually and deliberately for their religious or spiritual effects, and the question arises as to how do these new generations of users behave? Are they using lesser potencies or small doses so not triggering full blown visionary trips? Are the ‘ravers’ and ‘loved up’ integrating the rich experience of their chemically triggered excursions into their normal lives, and how?

Our experimental sixties generation had heavyweight intellectuals interceding to contextualise and assist our understanding of our novel and quite shattering consciousness-changing ‘trips’. Writers like Aldous Huxley with ‘Doors of Perception’, psychologists like Dr Timothy Leary, later more of a guru, and Doctor of Divinity Alan Watts in whose ‘The Joyous Cosmology’ (Vintage Books, 1965) we are told:

The reaction of most cultured people to the idea of gaining any deep psychological or philosophical insight through a drug is that it is much too simple, too artificial, and even too banal to be seriously considered. A wisdom which can be ‘turned on’ like the switch of a lamp seems to insult human dignity, and degrade us to chemical automata”.

Watts is not deterred by this prejudice from making his case that ingesting psychedelics cautiously or interrogatively, as one approaches a holy sacrament, does provide “a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened..”

 However “drugs of this kind are in no sense bottled and predigested wisdom”. 

It is unsurprising that with his highly developed and practiced knowledge of Eastern religions and practices, especially Zen Buddhism, that Watts sees psychedelics as providing the ‘raw materials of wisdom’ but needing integration by the ‘various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. When you get the message, hang up the phoneas he pithily puts it.  Are modern users hanging up the phone and digesting the consciousness-changing lessons?  Do they, like his friend Aldous Huxley, recognise their special utility for visionary revelations, changed consciousness, enhanced awareness and possible permanent insights?

Dr Albert Hofmann discovered and synthesised LSD 25 isolating it as an active ingredient from the raw plant materials like mushrooms, rye ergot and so on previously utilised throughout human history for divinatory and mystical purposes, and the application of what was learned.  He developed with R Gordon Wasson and others the thesis that the lessons such catalysts of consciousness changing enabled go back to the ancient Greeks and the Elusinian mysteries. This makes them both very central to the development of our western civilisation out of classical times and relevant for personal development in our individual lives.

Watts hesitated before writing and publishing his accounts speculating whether he was “profaning the mysteries and casting pearls before swine” finally deciding “to encourage a positive, above-board, fearless and intelligent approach to what are now known as psychedelic chemicals”.

Watts is highly disparaging of the official classification of what were then new drugs as ‘hallucinogens’, “an astonishingly inaccurate term, since they cause one neither to hear voices nor to see visions such as might be confused with physical reality”. For him, while acknowledging complex patterns before closed eyes “their general effect is to sharpen the senses to a supernormal degree of awareness”.

He would doubtless be equally condemnatory of the mass abuse and exploitation of a wonderful tool for knowledge and inner exploration being a mere adjunct to enjoyment of a disco rave up. Are psychedelic agents now just an indulgence? Are they no more than a wild temporary dancing intoxication without meaning or depth?

Hofmann was definitely critical of the uses and users of his ‘Problem Child’ LSD and the drug-wave which broke out in the 1960s starting in the USA. LSD rose to become the number one drug, not simply because of its effects alone which could vary, but because it was not illegal. As the drug of choice of hippies and flower children it came to be massively used and often incautiously ‘without consideration of the uncommonly profound effect it can have on consciousness’.

For Hofmann far away in peaceful Switzerland he saw (from Hofmann’s Elixir p65-6)

“ The Psychedelic Revolution threatened to become a national catastrophe in the USA, all the more so as the use of this drug was connected with a pacifistic, anti-Establishment movement. It went so far that in 1967 the US Health authorities decided on complete prohibition an example soon followed in other countries around the world”.

Many of us at that time would consider it was not health reasons as there never were any deaths, even from huge overdoses. A collision between militaristic and materialistic authorities and the anti-materialist, anti-war ‘love-generation’ went only one way with brutal repression of a new way of being formed out of expanded consciousness. Hofmann does admit this by then saying:

“The pharmacological and psychological effects, and the toxicological properties of the ‘phantastica’ themselves could not justify such draconian prohibition. It can only be explained by fear of the consciousness-altering effects which extensive use of these drugs might have on society.”

For powerful effects this new shared mind-changing was indeed creating, ancient wisdom could have predicted this if anyone was noticing. Psychedelic triggers or Shamanic entheogens, were formerly considered divine food, according to Carl Ruck and Danny Staples and others in the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs. From Greek mythology we learn it was not something to be indulged in or sampled lightly, not something to be profaned. It was the food of the gods, their ambrosia, and it mediated between the two realms. It is said that Tantalus‘s crime was inviting commoners to share his ambrosia, and his punishment or fate was to be cursed with eternal deprivation of nourishment which was ‘tantalisingly’ close at hand.

Perhaps it is legitimate to assume that like myself and our generation, (I can hear ‘The Who’ bashing out ‘My Generation’in my ears as I write this) the need for understanding and indeed wisdom comes to us as part of ‘the aging experience’. Now that sounds like a wrinklies theme park! So this new and different way of being was disallowed, prohibited by fiat, even its therapeutic and careful clinical applications were stopped despite its proven beneficial properties and great promise.

As an aside at this time it is worth noting how Hofmann records that Aldous Huxley’s

“fervent mission on behalf of the psychedelic drugs came to be resented, even by the majority of his friends and readers. Some say it cost him the Nobel Prize.”

And today?

What has undoubtedly changed in fifty years of psychedelics is the shrinking of the geographical world. Affordable mass transportation has reduced the divide between the so-called ‘primitive’ cultures of third world undeveloped (read ‘Westernised’) society and Europe, the USA and others. So even ordinary individuals with curiosity and enterprise now visit and sample for themselves the esoteric otherness of alternative systems of belief and their application in psychology , medicine, visionary exploration or whatever. Mark Flaherty has recently written his personal odyssey of searching for relief from his desperate, maddening, physical skin condition. Very new and not yet widely circulated it is worth reprinting here the summary from Psychedelic Press:

Originally published in 2012 ‘Shedding the Layers: How Ayahuasca Saved More than My Skin’ by Mark Flaherty is an autobiographical account of the author’s efforts to cure himself of severe eczema by undergoing a series of ayahuasca sessions in Peru.

Mark Flaherty suffered a severe case of eczema, which affected large areas of his skin and Western science failed to bring the condition under control. This resulted in a great deal of pain, the erosion of his self-esteem and disenchantment with life. “While my body cracks and weeps, my mind swells with fear, anger and sadness. I hate my body, and I hate my life with a violence that frightens me” (Flaherty 2012, 50). In a narrative that jumps back and forth between Peru and England, and slides between different stages of Flaherty’s life, the book brings to life a slow journey of self-realisation with the hallucinogenic, South American brew, ayahuasca.

From the very beginning of the book, when Flaherty is listening to a shaman named Hamilton recount his own spiritual story, there is an emphasis on two poles; restriction and release. “The shaman told him that he had two options: forget anything ever happened and go back to his old life, or give himself over and find out what it all meant” (Flaherty 2012, 16). The arc of the book follows a movement from restriction, in his outlook and habits, to the release allowed by love and happiness. As Hamilton tells the initially sceptical Flaherty: “You have a very narrow view of reality” (Flaherty 2012, 20). This restricted reality is prized apart by the exoticism of Peru and the Other world of ayahuasca, in preparation for a release and a new way-of-being in England.

A number of elements, or layers, are drawn out that represent the restrictions that had come to define Flaherty as physically ailed and unconfident. For instance, one root of restriction is placed in an LSD trip he had taken in Zambia in which he had stepped on a bewitched trinket. Ever since, he had purportedly harboured a spirit of ill-will and ayahuasca not only demonstrated this occurrence but led to a way of freeing himself from its yoke. However, more often than not after realisations, Flaherty’s eczema would return with a vengeance. As the story progresses, the layers are textually released through their identification, realisation and integration. On a diet of sanango, the snake becomes an ideal metaphor for shedding:

Alberto tells me that the sanango will cause my skin to peel. In snake-like fashion, I shed my entire body, from scalp to toes. Whereas the snake emerges reborn with a bright new layer, my skin continues to peel, again and again, becoming more tender and raw. It’s as though my entire self is being stripped away, leaving nothing but an exposed, hateful core (Flaherty 2012, 77)

Today, there is a sense of growing movement in the spread of ayahuasca; long tendrils increasingly reaching out and touching Western society in a myriad of shamanic and syncretic forms. This is patterned within the narrative. For instance, an article written by a former guest with Hamilton at Blue Morpho, who was cured, in five sessions, of acute depression and suicidal ideation, is mentioned within the narrative. There are the globe-trotting Western ayahuasca participants. And, moreover, Flaherty’s repeated flights between South America and England makes the world feel all the more smaller and accessible. One has the sense, when reading Shedding the Layers, that a powerful plant is not so far away on our doorstep; restricted, yet awaiting full release.”

In a personal communication with the author I expressed my view.

2 Responses to “Literary Review: ‘Shedding the Layers’ by Mark Flaherty”

A traditional difficulty with all psychedelic, in this case shamanistic, experience is integrating it into a ‘western’ rational quasi-scientific world view.
What is too easily dismissed is personal experience, even a cure, regarded as ‘merely anecdotal ‘
There is no ‘merely’ about it if you are the actual person, or even a close witness, it is real, factual, solid, true.


Couldn’t agree more with you, Oldfenboy. Most people in society have a very narrow view of reality and what is possible. I used to be extremely sceptical of alternative medicines and it was only desperation and the fact that doctors could do absolutely nothing for me that enabled me to investigate alternatives. Western medicine doesn’t ever cure anything, but is often very good at suppressing symptoms. I was “lucky” in that my symptoms were so severe that the doctors couldn’t suppress them. My time living with the shamans in Peru completely altered everything I thought myself and life to be. Without question they saved my life.Maybe some friends and family still doubt that ayahuasca helped me to heal, but those that saw me at my sickest cannot deny that my life and physical body has been completely transformed through working with ayahuasca.


Since my windows of perception were cleansed, if not blown completely out many years ago, it has been natural to keep an open mind to other’s unusual and occasionally outlandish experience. But this does not mean dispensing altogether with one’s critical faculties, there is an awful lot of bullshit out there. A later chapter examines how to approach judging the distinctions between Science and Belief and the place of personal experience in serious inquiry.

But here and now, concerning Flaherty’s ‘magical’ cure, if we turn to chemist and LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann writing on ‘Science and the Mystico-Religous Experience of The World’ he quotes Max Planck the German theoretical physicist who originated quantum theory, which won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918.[2]

“The source of all knowledge and thus the origin of all science lies in personal experiences. These are the directly given, the most real that one can think and the foothold for commencing the trains of thought which constitute science”.

Returning to the shrinking of the geographical world and our new proximity to this ancient wisdom, there is the terrible danger that rather than valuing and incorporating it into our scientific systems it will go the way of so much else and be crushed out of existence by our domineering imperialist attitudes devastating local cultures and beliefs. There is great concern evinced by some like Pankaj Mishra that neo-imperialists are returning to rule the roost, denying the ravages of western imperialism.

“Embracing such fantasies of “full-spectrum dominance”, American and European policymakers failed to ask themselves a simple question: whether, as Jonathan Schell put it, “the people of the world, having overthrown the territorial empires, are ready to bend the knee to an American overlord in the 21st”? After two unwinnable wars and horribly botched nation-building efforts, and many unconscionable human losses (between 600,000 and one million in Iraq alone), the “neo-imperialists” offering seductive fantasies of the west’s potency look as reliable as the peddlers of fake Viagra. Yet, armour-plated against actuality by think tanks, academic sinecures and TV gigs, they continue to find eager customers. Of course, as the historian Richard Drayton points out, the writing of British imperial history, has long been a “patriotic enterprise”. Wishing to “celebrate” empire, Michael Gove plans to entrust the task of rewriting the history syllabus to Niall Ferguson, one of the “neo-imperialist” cheerleaders of the assault on Iraq, who now craves “creative destruction” in Iran and whose “skilful revision of history” the Guardian’s Jeevan Vasagar asserted last month, “will reverberate for years to come”.

Clearly, it would help if no Asian or African voices interrupt this intellectual and moral onanism. Astonishing as it may seem, there is next to nothing in the new revisionist histories of empire, or even the insidious accounts of India and China catching up with the west, about how writers, thinkers and activists in one Asian country after another attested to the ravages of western imperialism in Asia: the immiseration of peasants and artisans, the collapse of living standards and the devastation of local cultures. We learn even less about how these early Asian leaders diagnosed from their special perspective the political and economic ideals of Europe and America, and accordingly defined their own tasks of self-strengthening.”

What hope for the continuance of native ceremonial and beliefs if intolerance and extinction looms? Somehow among the curanderos of Mexican origins their practices have survived imperial conquest thus far and some serious western scientists are investigating their claims and abilities with relatively open minds as in A Visit to a Cuandero, which translates as healer or shaman by J. Dennis Mull, MD, MPH and Dorothy S. Mull, PhD.

Some faltering first steps are also being taken to expanding legal experimentation with LSD in the research sphere under pressure from researchers like Dr David Nutt, former ‘Drugs Czar’ for the UK government who says to the BBC  this year 2012

“We need to have a more scientific rational approach to drugs and vilifying drugs like psilocybin whilst at the same time actively promoting much more dangerous drugs like alcohol is totally stupid scientifically”

Perhaps we shall yet move a little closer to performing the wish in the dedication that Huxley inscribed in his gift of a book on the subject to Hofmann on 29 February 1962, so fifty years ago:

 “Essentially this is what must be developed: the art of giving out in love and intelligence what is taken from vision and the experience of self-transcendence and solidarity with the Universe…”

Trying to Write about LSD Tripping

Hallucinations and Nonsense

While writing about psychedelics and their effects I feel the infinite regress merging into the Cosmic Joke and being in some sense outside rational and logical understanding. What sense?

So a slight detour as I discover that the aforesaid Daniel Dennett (a well recognised expert on conciousness) has collaborated with an undergrad who asked him for supervision with a thesis on humour and they brought a book into being with another Prof.

Dennett found Hurley’s resulting thesis so promising that he suggested trying to get it published. In the end, the student and his two professors collaborated on the book Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind (MIT Press, 2011).

The authors detail the multitudinous theories that have been offered over the centuries for how humor—or mirth as it’s called by academics—works. But most of those theories skirt the question that most intrigued Hurley, now a Ph.D. student atIndianaUniversity.

“Why is there funny at all? I think that’s the most important question we asked,” Dennett says.

“Brain Candy

A lawyer was approached by Mephistopheles, who offered him a brilliant career as a defense attorney, leading to a seat on the Supreme Court and a Hollywood movie biopic—in exchange for the souls of his wife and three children. The lawyer thought and thought, sweat pouring off his brow. Finally, he looked up at Mephistopheles and said, “There’s a catch, right?”

Human beings are anticipation machines: we’re always making assumptions about what’s coming next, usually based on very limited information. “Evolution gave us minds that tend to statistically fill in the blanks a lot—to make quick and dirty guesses as to what’s going on around us, using experience as our guide,” says Hurley, whose doctoral study is in cognition and emotion. Most of the time our minds do that work well, he notes, coming up with correct, or at least good enough, answers.

But occasionally we’re just plain wrong. Hurley says that’s where mirth plays a key role. The pleasure that a joke can bring motivates us to double-check our thoughts and ferret out our mistakes. “It’s important to survival, and the only way it gets done is if it’s fun,” Dennett says. “That’s the brain’s way, Mother Nature’s way, of getting us to do what it wants us to do.”

A senior citizen is driving on the highway. His wife calls him on his cell phone and in a worried voice says, “Herman, be careful! I just heard on the radio that there is a madman driving the wrong way on Route 280!”

Herman says, “Not just one, there are hundreds!”

We catch the error—we’d been expecting one thing, and when another pops up instead, it strikes us as funny.

Yet our brains, say Hurley and Dennett, have to perform many functions—and looking for incongruities is just one. So while the main purpose of humor is to help us survive, the enjoyment it provides has taken on a broader significance in our lives. “In the same way that chocolate cake is a supernormal stimulus for a sweet tooth—nothing that nature intended—so humor is chocolate cake for the funny bone,” Dennett says.

Texan: “Where are you from?”

Harvard grad: “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”

Texan: “Okay—where are you from, jackass?”

The evolutionary theory of humor isn’t exactly easy to prove, but Hurley says the “cognitive-mechanical details” of it can be put to the test by psychology researchers. Neuroscientists have been studying brain activation in humorous circumstances, he notes, and they’ve also been “finding support for the probably-not-too-controversial idea of reward system activation,” one of the mechanisms by which the authors say humor works.

Social Talent

I was wondering why the Frisbee was getting bigger, and then it hit me.

Humor isn’t just about having a good yuk at our own expense, or someone else’s. It’s a vital social skill, Dennett says.

“Humor is part of human intelligence,” he explains. “There’s a lot of social talent, social competence, which is manifest in a sense of humor, and if you don’t have a sense of humor, it’s not like being tone deaf. Not having a sense of humor is a severe disability.”

For example, this summer, when Herman Cain was still in the Republican presidential primary, he addressed a large gathering of conservatives, winning them over easily with jokes told with the timing of a stand-up comic. But when Mitt Romney came on stage next, his jokes fell flat; it was clear that his connection with the audience was weak at best.

Ad in a newspaper: “Illiterate? Write today for free help.”

Another interesting point is that we seem to be the only species with a sense of humor. Our close relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees, apparently appreciate fun, but it looks very different from humor. Again, Dennett says, that fits with the evolutionary role of humor: it’s an attribute that would have evolved as humans evolved.

There is, of course, an occupational hazard of studying humor: you lose your sense of it. It’s what’s called being “joke blind,” like eating so many sweet things that you can’t tell what’s sweet anymore.

A hole has been found in the nudist camp wall. The police are looking into it.

Nevertheless, Hurley says he himself is as full of mirth as ever. All the analyzing “killed many a joke,” he says, “but new humorous things happen every day, and I think I’m still as sensitive to them as I always was.”

Terrible risk it seems to me, losing your sense of humour would be like losing a major line of defence in a crazy world, it doesn’t seem to happen. In fact I begin to believe by thinking about it you become more sensitised, absurdity is everywhere, humour follows.

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