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“To learn healing knowledge”: Psychedelic studies, philosophy, transformation and healing

“For our species, I learned, plants and fungi with the power to radically alter consciousness have long and widely been used as tools for healing the mind, for facilitating rites of passage, and for serving as a medium for communicating with supernatural realms, or spirit worlds. These uses were ancient and venerable in a great many cultures, but I ventured one other application: to enrich the collective imagination — the culture — with the novel ideas and visions that a select few people bring back from wherever it is they go”. Michael Pollan, in How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, 2018.

Abstract

Psychedelic studies conducted at Johns Hopkins, NYU, UCLA, and elsewhere, are yielding significant and exciting results. Patients guided through psychotherapy assisted psychedelic experiences report not only that their psychological problems are drastically alleviated or cured, but that their psychedelic experiences facilitate life-changing psychological transformations. Some of the information compiled in various psychedelic studies is coterminous with information available on the impact of the Ancient Greek Eleusinian rituals, which also facilitated profound transformations in initiates after they drank the sacred kykeon. The link between contemporary clinical research and Ancient Greek culture is important: the research lends support to the underemphasised argument that psychedelic experiences were central to Ancient Greek culture, a culture considered to have sparked Western philosophy and culture. A further link is discernable in Hadot’s account of philosophy as a way of life, where philosophical perception is aligned with the transformed perceptual states depicted in psychedelic studies and reports of the Eleusinian experience; and philosophy according to Badiou is ‘interested in’ transformation, which lends further support to the claim that philosophy should be interested in the transformative (psychedelic) experience. Furthermore, indigenous Southern African practices often facilitated transformative psychedelic experiences. Psychedelics therefore increasingly appear to be a commonality across various contexts. Considering the focus on transformation in the South African post-apartheid legacy, appropriate platforms for accessible psychedelic experiences can arguably facilitate small but important steps toward the transformation (something always of interest to philosophy) of ailing economies and ecosystems, and simultaneously provide opportunities for personal growth, social cohesion, and academic collaboration.           

 

Background problem and aims

All psychedelics – ‘magic’ mushrooms[1], mescaline from certain cacti, LSD[2], ayauscha and DMT[3], MDMA[4], to name the obvious ones – are illegal. In most countries, penalties for possession of these substances are severe and people often spend many years in jail if convicted for a drug offence. In this context of illegality, it is unsurprising that the topic of psychedelics is often taboo, especially considering the propaganda[5] churned out by the (failed) ‘war on drugs’[6]. What is perhaps surprising is that in 1956, when various psychedelics and other ‘drugs’ were still legal[7] in the U.S.A., R. Gordon Wasson read a paper to an academic group and thereafter received an admonition, suggesting that even then the topic was a sensitive one. His talk was on how the ceremonies used by a Mesoamerican mushroom cult, ceremonies he had partaken in[8], might reveal insight into the Eleusinian Mysteries. After the meeting, a close and long-time friend of Wasson wrote him a letter in which the following was stated (1978:2):

May I add a word of warning? Stick to your Mexican mushroom cult and beware of seeing mushrooms everywhere. We much enjoyed your Philadelphia paper and would recommend you keep as close to that as you can. Forgive the frankness of an old friend.

Wasson speculates that the aura of secrecy in Greek times surrounding the Eleusinian ritual had persisted into his contemporary times, which might explain why his long-time friend, a specialist in Greek archaeology, felt as if it was something of a sacrilege when “prying open the secret” (1978:2). Exactly why the classical scholar protested will forever remain unknown to those of us interested in the attitudes toward the kinds of initiatory experiences similar to the Eleusinian ones. What is certain is that there still exist negative attitudes to the topic of psychedelics, a point evidenced by the simple fact of the broad-spectrum psychedelic prohibition already alluded to. By outlining, first, some of the results of contemporary studies on psychotherapy assisted psychedelic treatments[9], second, some research conducted by Wasson, Hoffman, Ruck and others into the link between the Eleusinian Mysteries and psychedelics, third, by pointing out that the origins of Western philosophy and culture were heavily influenced by the psychedelic experience, and fourth, by making links between ‘philosophical perception’ and ‘psychedelic perception’, I aim to present the topic of ‘psychedelics and philosophy’ in a positive manner and thereby assist in the destigmatisation of the topic. This process of destigmatisation might then make it possible for the ‘psychedelic common grounds’ in the histories of Western philosophy and Southern African indigenous cultural practices[10] to be foregrounded, which is my fifth focal area in this paper. Finally, considering the positive, transformative light in which the topic of psychedelics will be painted throughout steps one to five, I will conclude by suggesting that psychedelics may be able to play an important role across the socio-economic and ecological spectrums.

The new science of psychedelics[11]

For most of this sub-section, the results of various scientific studies will be allowed to ‘speak for themselves’ without any sense of ‘authorial contamination’ or interpretation. Methodologically, this initial approach is important because the themes and information in this sub-section will serve as the foundation from which links will be made to coterminous themes and information relevant across contexts in later sub-sections. The studies are conducted at credible institutions using credible methodologies[12], which is important to remember when considering what may seem to be the ‘incredible’ descriptions of the psychedelic experience and the results attained from the careful use of psychedelic substances combined with psychotherapy.  In the final quarter of this sub-section, I will collate several more generalised observations made by reputable researchers about the psychedelic experience.

In a 2016 study titled “Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial” [13] [14], published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the following results are specified:

[P]silocybin produced immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression and led to decreases in cancer-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual wellbeing, and increased quality of life. At the 6.5-month follow-up, psilocybin was associated with enduring anxiolytic and anti-depressant effects (approximately 60–80% of participants continued with clinically significant reductions in depression or anxiety), sustained benefits in existential distress and quality of life, as well as improved attitudes towards death. The psilocybin-induced mystical[15] experience mediated the therapeutic effect of psilocybin on anxiety and depression. (Ross et. al., 2016)

In a similar 2016 study titled “Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial”[16], also published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the following results are specified:

High-dose psilocybin produced large decreases in clinician- and self-rated measures of depressed mood and anxiety, along with increases in quality of life, life meaning, and optimism, and decreases in death anxiety. At 6-month follow-up, these changes were sustained, with about 80% of participants continuing to show clinically significant decreases in depressed mood and anxiety. Participants attributed improvements in attitudes about life/self, mood, relationships, and spirituality to the high-dose experience, with >80% endorsing moderately or greater increased well-being/life satisfaction. Community observer ratings showed corresponding changes. Mystical-type psilocybin experience on session day mediated the effect of psilocybin dose on therapeutic outcomes. (Griffiths et. al. 2017)

Again in 2016, a study titled “Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation”, which focused longitudinally on 15 participants, was published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. In the study the following is recorded:

At long-term follow-up, nine participants (60%) were confirmed as smoking abstinent. At 12-month follow-up 13 participants (86.7%) rated their psilocybin experiences among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives. (Johnson et. al. 2016)

In a 2017 study titled “Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors”[17], published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2018, the following is specified:

Compared with low-dose, high-dose psilocybin produced greater acute and persisting effects. At 6 months… both high-dose groups showed large significant positive changes on longitudinal measures of interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith and coping, and community observer ratings. Determinants of enduring effects were psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience and rates of meditation/spiritual practices. Psilocybin can occasion enduring trait-level increases in prosocial attitudes/behaviors and in healthy psychological functioning. (Griffiths et. al., 2018)

In another article published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, titled “Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression”, the following is recorded:

In the general population, psychedelic drug use is not associated with increased incidence of mental health problems (Johansen and Krebs, 2015; Krebs and Johansen, 2013)[18], but is instead associated with lower rates of suicidality and psychological distress (Hendricks et al., 2015a, 2015b; Johansen and Krebs, 2015; Krebs and Johansen, 2013). Psychedelic drug users have also been shown to exhibit greater optimism (or reduced pessimism) than non-users (Grob et al., 1996) as well as increased concern for others, nature and the environment when compared with users of cannabis, amphetamine or heroin (Lerner and Lyvers, 2006). Experience with psychedelics has been found to positively affect one’s sense of feeling part of nature rather than separate from it, leading to pro-environmental behavioural changes (Forstmann and Sagioglou, 2017). (Lyons and Carhart-Harris, 2018)

MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Study, has taken MDMA therapy trails through FDA approved phase 2, which is no small undertaking in the U.S.A. considering the strict requirements of the regulatory processes for clinical trials. A major breakthrough has occurred since the phase 2 trials: “On July 28, 2017, MAPS and the FDA reached agreement on the Special Protocol Assessment for Phase 3 clinical trials”, which confirms “that the protocol design, clinical endpoints, planned conduct, and statistical analyses for the Phase 3 trials… are acceptable to support regulatory approval by the FDA”[19]. The following summary of numerous trials is provided at the MAPS website:

Phase 2 clinical trials have shown that MDMA can reduce fear and defensiveness, enhance communication and introspection, and increase empathy and compassion, enhancing the therapeutic process for people suffering from PTSD [post-traumatic stress syndrome]. In MAPS’ completed Phase 2 trials with 107 participants, 61% no longer qualified for PTSD after three sessions of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy two months following treatment. At the 12-month follow-up, 68% no longer had PTSD. All participants had chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD, and had suffered from PTSD for an average of 17.8 years.

I have listed some findings from five published articles, and quoted from a summary of MAPS findings. This methodology could go on indefinitely due to the several dozen similar studies and results, many of which are compiled at various websites[20]. One more article, this time published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, must feature in this sub-section because in it some important themes and information are emphasised that explicitly depict the psychedelic experience as profoundly transformative. The researchers employed semi-structured interviews to ascertain from thirteen “adult participants aged 22 to 69 years… with clinically elevated anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis” the qualitative impacts of psychedelic therapy. Here follows a summary of the findings:

General themes found in all or nearly all transcripts included relational embeddedness, emotional range, the role of music as conveyor of experience, meaningful visual phenomena, wisdom lessons, revised life priorities, and a desire to repeat the psilocybin experience. Typical themes found in the majority of transcripts included the following: exalted feelings of joy, bliss, and love; embodiment; ineffability; alterations to identity; a movement from feelings of separateness to interconnectedness; experiences of transient psychological distress; the appearance of loved ones as guiding spirits; and sharing the experience with loved ones posttreatment. Variant themes found in a minority of participant transcripts include lasting changes to sense of identity, synesthesia experiences, catharsis of powerful emotion, improved relationships after treatment, surrender or “letting go,” forgiveness, and a continued struggle to integrate experience. (Belsar et. al., 2017)

There has been a large focus on the impact of psilocybin in this sub-section, with MDMA featuring once. However, studies are available on all of the psychedelic substances listed at the start of this article, and I have not found any rigorously conducted study or trial that either does not put the careful use of a psychedelic substance in a positive light, or emphasise the profundity of the psychedelic experience. The respected researcher Stanislav Grof, for example, speaking about his work with LSD, had the following to say:

[T]his substance is an unspecific amplifier of mental processes that brings to the surface various elements from the depth of the unconscious. What we see in the LSD experiences and in various situations surrounding them appears to be basically an exteriorization and magnification of the conflicts intrinsic to human nature and civilization. If approached from this point of view, LSD phenomena are extremely interesting material for a deeper understanding of the mind, the nature of man, and human society. (Grof 1975)

Grof went so far as to suggest that work with altered states of consciousness, such as the states of consciousness induced by taking a psychedelic substance, may play a role in increasing “our chances of planetary survival”:

Deep reverence for life and ecological awareness are among the most frequent consequences of the psychospiritual transformation that accompanies responsible work with non-ordinary states of consciousness.  The same has been true for spiritual emergence of a mystical nature that is based on personal experience. It is my belief that a movement in the direction of a fuller awareness of our unconscious minds will vastly increase our chances of planetary survival. (Grof 1992)

Grof’s sentiments might seem a step too far in comparison to the methodological rigour of contemporary clinical studies. However, evident in the results of contemporary clinical studies are ‘peak experiences’ facilitated by the psychedelic under scrutiny in any given study, and it is frequently the case that researchers see beyond necessarily-limited clinical scopes. For example, Lester Grinspoon, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School[21], and his colleague James B. Bakalar, the associate editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and a lecturer in law in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School[22], state the following (1997):

Psychedelic therapy has an analogue in Abraham Maslow’s idea of the peak experience. The drug taker feels somehow allied with a higher power; he becomes convinced that he is part of a much larger pattern, and the sense of cleaning, release, and joy makes old woes seem trivial.

Gary Fisher, “a clinical psychologist who is one of the pioneer workers in psychotherapy utilizing LSD and psilocybin”[23], places emphasis on the role of psychedelics beyond the confines of the purposes to which psychedelics are put in clinical conditions:

Fortunately, after a successful psychedelic experience, you never go back to your previous state of consciousness – that’s the whole point of taking psychedelics. If you don’t integrate the higher levels of consciousness into your daily life, then the trip has been irrelevant. … If a psychedelic doesn’t result in your becoming a human being who is more human, then psychedelics are meaningless and don’t make a difference. I have never known anyone who had a profound transcendental experience who wasn’t significantly changed in his or her daily life by that experience. (Fisher, in Walsh and Grof 2005)

To be sure, there are some risks in the psychedelic undertaking[24], but when psychological screening of potential patients is carried out, as is always the case in the trials and studies listed here and elsewhere, and when the patients are ‘guided’ by a trained administrator and later allowed to integrate their experience proactively via psychotherapy, the results are overwhelmingly positive. The word ‘positive’ may be grossly inappropriate, considering that, as has already been seen, patients rated their psychedelic experience “among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives” – this is surely another articulation of the concept of a ‘peak experience’. It is with the demonstrable facts made available in the psychedelic studies in mind, as well as the broader notion of the ‘peak experience’, that attention can now be turned toward the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most sacred ceremonial rites of passage in Ancient Greece, a culture widely held to be the cradle of Western civilisation and culture, and the birthplace of Western philosophy:

This small country and its people have had a huge influence on the world. Greece is the birthplace of democracy and Western culture. In so many fields of human endeavour – government, philosophy, science, mythology, religion, and all the arts – the accomplishments and contributions of Greece have at times been equalled but have never been surpassed. (McGinnis 2004:7)

The Eleusinian Mysteries

Eleusis is situated slightly north of Athens. Every year for almost 2000 years during the history of Ancient Greece, “people of all classes, emperors and prostitutes, slaves and freemen” (Ruck 1978:12), walked Greece’s most sacred road[25] to participate in the Greek Empire’s most revered celebration. It was a celebration shrouded in secrecy, so much so that “no one, under pain of death, could reveal what happened within the sanctuary” at Eleusis (Ruck 1978:12). Despite the secrecy surrounding the ritual, or perhaps due to the secrecy and the astounding reports by initiates that they underwent life-changing experiences there, various inquiries have been made into the goings-on at Eleusis. What is absolutely clear from these inquiries is that the effect of the ceremony at Eleusis on individuals is conspicuously similar to the psychedelic experience as depicted in the previous sub-section. Furthermore, the inquiries have resulted in the compilation of information that indicates that a psychedelic substance was indeed used at Eleusis. This is important to recognise because, as quoted in the previous sub-section, Ancient Greek culture and philosophy heavily influenced Western culture and philosophy, and if the Eleusinian rites of passage (which were held in the highest regard in Ancient Greece) were of a psychedelic nature, it would seem inappropriate that psychedelics are taboo and prohibited from use in a contemporary culture inheriting so much in the forms of art, philosophy, democracy, religion, and so on, from a culture that held the psychedelic experience in the highest regard. Furthermore, if a psychedelic was used at Eleusis, or at least if a psychedelic state of consciousness was induced at Eleusis, then contemporary psychedelic studies could add insight into the nature of the ‘mystical experience’[26] unanimously reported as a component of the Eleusinian ritual – and vice versa. Acknowledging the psychedelic nature of the Eleusinian experience also links an ancient ceremony to contemporary science, which is a remarkable commonality across time and contexts. This acknowledgement would also make it possible to see links not only to contemporary psychedelic science, but to the indigenous cultural use of psychoactive substances for the purpose of inducing transformative experiences, which would indeed be a cross-cultural and cross-contextual common ground from which human similarities (rather than human differences) could be emphasised and from which collaboration (rather than compartmentalisation and competition) could occur. In short, the study of the various facets of the psychedelic experience could provide opportunities for collaboration and cohesion across contexts, cultures, and disciplines.

The first step of psychedelic use requires that a user ‘takes something’ – a person must eat, drink, or smoke the ‘drug’. At Eleusis, the preparation of the ‘drug’ – the sacred kykeon – was, according to Ruck (1978:13+17) the central event: “a special potion, as we know, was drunk prior to the visual experience”. I have not been able to find an inquiry into the Eleusinian rituals that does not make reference to the drinking of the kykeon (sometimes referred to as a potion) as well as the reported effects of consuming it. The kykeon is everywhere accepted to be a “barley drink” (Rosen 1987:416) infused with mint. In 1943 Albert Hoffman synthesised LSD from ergot fungi, which grows on grains such as barley. When asked by Wasson if the Ancient Greeks could have arrived at a psychedelic drink – i.e. their kykeon – from natural substances and extraction processes at their disposal, Hoffman (1978:10-11) said that

it is certainly not pulling a long bow to assume that the barley grown [at Eleusis] was host to an ergot containing, perhaps among others, the soluble hallucinogenic alkaloids. The famous Rarian plain was adjacent to Eleusis. Indeed this may well have led to the choice of Eleusis for Demeter’s temple, and for the growth of the cluster of powerful myths surrounding them and Triptolemus that still exert their spell on us today.

Despite Hoffman’s considered conclusion[27], one commentator[28] has pointed out that the various available descriptions of the effects of drinking the kykeon indicate that a far more powerful psychoactive substance was the key ingredient in the kykeon recipe. This view holds that considerably large doses of water-soluble ergot fungi would have been needed at exactly the right time of the year for the ceremony, and such reliable availability of large amounts is not guaranteed. However, rather than conclude that a lack of reliable availability of the ergot psychoactive proves that no psychoactive substance was used at Eleusis, the commentator suggests, first, that the myth of Demeter – around which the ceremony is centred, and in which reference is made to the barley drink – was constructed to deliberately protect the secret of the kykeon by misleading ‘audiences’ about the exact ingredients of the kykeon. The commentator goes so far as to suggest that a different, more reliable psychoactive substance was likely the culprit, with his guess being one of the psychoactive ‘magic’ mushrooms such as ones containing psilocybin, a molecule that certainly induces powerful psychedelic effects, as already seen in the extracts from contemporary psychedelic studies. The point here is not to identify which psychoactive substance was used, but rather to emphasise the insistence of researchers that some kind of powerful psychoactive was used.

Rosen follows the philology of the word kykeon via an examination of a fragment of a poem by Hipponax. The researcher (1987:15) identifies first its potential literal meaning in the poem: “a remedy against the hunger arriving from… poverty”, and quickly points out that the speaker of the poem requires of the addressee barley for his drink. Rosen immediately suggests that the more appropriate meaning of the word is ‘drug’: “the kykeon was also known in antiquity for its medicinal qualities, making it all the more appropriate that it be referred to as… a drug in the literal sense” (Ibid). Rosen (1987:422-423) also focuses briefly on the work of C. Watkins to point out that the Homeric references to kykeon

reflect an inherited pre-Greek religious ritual. [Watkins] points out the striking formulaic and thematic correspondences between these Homeric passages and the references in the Rig-Veda to the ritual drinking of soma, which also contains barley. Indeed the central characteristic of both potions, as Watkins demonstrates, is that they were each originally psychotropic.

Rosen’s inquiry into the issue is conveniently succinct. A slightly longer philological approach is taken by Ruck (1978:13-17), not into the Hipponax source, but directly into the Demeter myth pivotal to the Eleusis Mysteries. Ruck’s textual analysis is too long to summarise here, but his conclusion – which is supported in detail in his analysis – is that the “myths of Demeter and Persephone and all their company fit our explanation in every respect. Nothing in any of them is incompatible with our thesis”. The “explanation” Ruck is referring to is about the effects of the Eleusinian ceremony, and the “thesis” he mentions is that the Eleusinian initiates underwent a literal psychedelic experience. Here is an example of why Ruck makes such a conclusion: the central myth associated with the Eleusinian mystery is the myth of the abduction of the goddess Persephone, and her abduction is symbolic: “The marital abduction or seizure of maidens while gathering flowers is… a common theme in Greek myths and Plato records a rationalized version of such stories in which the companion of the seized maiden is named Pharmaceia or, as the name, means, the ‘use of drugs’” (1978:13). Ruck adds, “The particular myth that Plato is rationalizing is in fact one that traced the descent of the priesthood at Eleusis. There can be no doubt that Persephone’s abduction was a drug-induced seizure”.

For anyone who has had a proper[29] psychedelic experience, it is perhaps the case that identifying the exact psychoactive substance used at Eleusis is less important in supporting the explanation and thesis (Ibid) than is the recognition that the reported effects of the Eleusinian experience are fully coterminous with the psychedelic experience. After conducting his textual research into the Mysteries, Ruck (1978:13) summarises the effects as follows:

There were physical symptoms, moreover, that accompanied the vision: fear and a trembling in the limbs, vertigo, nausea, and a cold sweat. Then there came the vision, a sight amidst an aura of brilliant light that suddenly flickered through the darkened chamber. Eyes had never before seen the like, and… the experience itself was in-communicable, for there are no words adequate to the task. Even a poet could only say that he had seen the beginning and the end of life and known that they were one, something given by god. The division between earth and sky melted into a pillar of light.

To see ‘the beginning and end of life’ and to ‘know that they are one’ surely casts light on the epiphanies had by terminal cancer patients in the relevant psychedelic studies. Wasson (1978:4) quotes Aristides the Rhetor to elaborate further on the effects: what the initiate experienced was “new, astonishing, inaccessible to rational cognition”. Eleusis, says Aristides,

is a shrine common to the whole earth, and of all the divine things that exist among men, it is both the most awesome and the most luminous. At what place in the world have more miraculous tidings been sung, and where have the dromena called forth greater emotion, where has there been greater rivalry between seeing and hearing?

The reference to a “rivalry between seeing and hearing” – a.k.a. synaesthesia[30] – makes sense only if placed in the context of the effects of the psychedelic experience, for it is the case that under the influence of psychedelics, auditory stimuli often manifest in a visual manner, and vice versa[31]. Wasson, who partook in Mesoamerican mushroom rites, puts it as follows: “For the sights that one sees assume rhythmical contours, and the singing of the shaman seems to take on visible and colorful shapes” (1978:4). Indeed, it was directly after he had partaken in the rites that Wasson made the link: “That there might be a common denominator between the Mexican mushroom Mystery and the Mystery of Eleusis had struck me at once. They both aroused an overwhelming sense of awe, of wonder” (Ibid).

Ruck (1978:19) provides further important commentary and description on the experience at Eleusis:

The ancient testimony about Eleusis is unanimous and unambiguous. Eleusis was the supreme experience in an initiate’s life. It was both physical and mystical: trembling, vertigo, cold sweat, and then a sight that made all previous seeing seem like blindness, a sense of awe and wonder at a brilliance that caused a profound silence since what had just been seen and felt could never be communicated: words are unequal to the task. Those symptoms are unmistakably the experience induced by an hallucinogen.

The word ‘hallucinogen’ and ‘psychedelic’ are, for the purposes of this article, synonymous, as are the words ‘psychoactive’ or ‘entheogen’. They are words that more often than not since the 1970s are used as pejoratives. It is important to note that beyond the confines of the failed war on drugs launched into full force during the time of the Nixon administration in the U.S.A., the experience that is facilitated by the use of a psychedelic or hallucinogen is often considered to be “the culminating experience of a lifetime”[32] (1978:12), or, as has just been seen via Ruck’s commentary, “the supreme experience in an initiate’s life”. Accepting the hypothesis that such a substance was used in the ceremony at Eleusis allows one to make sense of statements such as the following one made by Rosen (1978:423-424): “Spiritual and physical happiness is… the promise of Eleusinian initiation. … Our sources stress not only that the initiate will be happy in the afterworld, but that he will also be happy and prosperous in this life”[33]. I will refer to some of the likely sources mentioned by Rosen in the following sub-section, but at this stage it is important to emphasise that there are strong similarities between the effects of psychedelic therapy and the Eleusinian kykeon-drinking ritual: it is precisely the case that terminal cancer patients are ‘happier in this life’, as well as more prepared for their ‘journey into the afterworld’, after their psychedelic therapy; and in general, patients and initiates alike have mystical experiences, are struck by awe and wonder, feel as though they are part of a bigger and more meaningful whole, re-evaluate how they comprehend life and death, see visions and patterns and details they have never seen before, and so on. Ultimately, patients and initiates alike are transformed for the better, and the nature of the experiences that bring about the transformations seem to be conspicuously coterminous: if a psychedelic substance was not in use at Eleusis (and I can find no sources that suggest one was not in use), then certainly a state of consciousness was induced in initiates that perfectly matches the state of consciousness induced in participants in contemporary psychedelic studies.

Philosophy’s psychedelic character in Ancient Greece

Some of the sources Rosen mentions (Ibid) – the ones that indicate that the Eleusinian initiate “will be happy in the afterworld, but that he will also be happy and prosperous in this life”, may be the writings attributed to Plato, wherein, for example, the following is to be found: “the founders of the mysteries had a real meaning and were not mere triflers when they intimated… that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods”[34]. Of importance to philosophers in particular is that, in these writings, “the mystics” are called “the true philosophers” (Ibid). The Eleusinian initiation process provides the context in which the word ‘mystic’ can be understood. The word has been seen to feature in some of the contemporary psychedelic studies already referred to. In an interview[35], Michael Pollan adds further clarity on the meaning of the word in the context of the psychedelic experience. He states that the psychedelic experience “feels to people like a mystical experience”: “it’s very spiritual, this sense of transcending this bag of bones we are and actually connect with larger entities” – ‘true philosophers’ are clearly placed within this ‘mystical’ context in the writings attributed to Plato. This happens again in Phaedrus, when reference is made to seeing “beauty shining in brightness – we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence”[36]. The ‘beatific vision’ is perfectly explained by contemporary reports of psychedelic experiences. It is worthwhile noting that these writings can be rendered most intelligible when read in conjunction with the ‘thesis’ and ‘explanation’ referred to by Ruck earlier, but might otherwise seem strange and out of place in absence of the mystical experience demonstrably accompanying a psychedelic experience. These writings are attributed to Plato, and Alfred North Whitehead has said that the “safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”. Whether Plato was a real figure is irrelevant here; the writings have been extremely influential throughout Western philosophy, and they point to the centrality of the mystical experience, which is best understood in the context of the transformed state of consciousness guaranteed to be brought about by the ingestion of a psychedelic substance. Plutarch, in Progress and Virtue, offers some commentary on this transformation by way of an analogy, where again the emphasis is on the links between philosophy and ‘transformed consciousness’:

Just as persons who are being initiated into the Mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting, and jostle against one another, but when the holy rites are being performed and disclosed the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence, so too at the beginning of philosophy: about its portals also you will see great tumult and talking and boldness, as some boorishly and violently try to jostle their way towards the repute it bestows; but he who has succeeded in getting inside, and has seen a great light, as though a shrine were opened, adopts another bearing of silence and amazement, and ‘humble and orderly attends upon’ reason as upon a god.

The seeing of a ‘great light’ and the adoption of a ‘bearing of silence and amazement’ are components of a psychedelic experience, and Plutarch, continuing the now familiar theme common amongst those who were initiated into the Mysteries, speaks of philosophy coterminously. Thomas Taylor, in his research into the Eleusinian Mysteries in 1891, records the same link. He writes, “Theon of Smyrna, in Mathematica, thus elegantly compares philosophy to these mystic rites”: “philosophy may be called the initiation into true sacred ceremonies, and the instruction in genuine Mysteries”. Accordingly, philosophers who have an interest in the origins of their discipline should in the light of these links surely cast aside negative opinions about the psychedelic experience and acknowledge the central role that the experience played in the ancient history and character of their discipline.

I have made some links between the Eleusinian experience and Ancient Greek philosophy, and I have foregrounded the ‘mystical’ transformation accompanying both of them; in the following sub-section I will again emphasise the transformative character of philosophy, albeit in different and more contemporary contexts, thereby highlighting the on-going transformative character of philosophy that may have its origins in mystical experiences best explained by psychedelic states of consciousness

By emphasising the above links between philosophy and the psychedelic experience, I am not suggesting that the direction taken by philosophy as a discipline since the time of the Ancient Greeks – almost exclusively a direction away from the altered states of consciousness central to the older philosophical endeavour at Eleusis – is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ direction. The process of change is universal, and philosophy as a discipline obviously cannot be exempt from this law. What I am suggesting, very specifically, is that the philosopher must acknowledge in the history of one’s discipline the high esteem – rather, the highest esteem – placed on the ‘initiatory’ experience facilitated at Eleusis, an experience that some researchers and authors acknowledge and argue to be one induced by psychedelics and which the Ancient Greeks equated with philosophy. A consequence of this acknowledgement is, at very least, that a philosopher cannot simply dismiss this type of experience without doing an injustice to the history of the discipline in which they participate – philosophers must take the experience seriously.

Philosophy and psychedelics: tools of transformation

I have already established that in the time of the Ancient Greeks the transformed state of mind cultivated by the (psychedelic) Eleusinian rituals was one coterminous with philosophy itself. Transformation is central here. Wasson (1978:5) speaks of the transformation as follows:

This newness of everything – it is as though the world had just dawned – overwhelms you and melts you with its beauty. Not unnaturally, what is happening to you seems to you freighted with significance, beside which the humdrum events of everyday are trivial. All these things you see with an immediacy of vision that leads you to say to yourself, “Now I am seeing for the first time, seeing direct, without the intervention of mortal eyes”. (Emphasis added).

Wasson could not have read Pierre Hadot’s work on the topic of philosophy as a way of life when he wrote those words, because chronologically Wasson precedes Hadot. Whether or not Hadot read Wasson’s work is uncertain, but after his research into ancient Greek and Helen philosophy, Hadot makes a remarkably similar observation[37] about the transformative power of philosophy as it was practiced in ancient times. Hadot (1995:257), elaborating on the notion of philosophy as a way of life, quotes Seneca on the contemplation of wisdom:  “I look at [wisdom] with the same stupefaction with which, on other occasions, I look at the world; this world that I quite often feel as though I were seeing for the first time” (emphasis added). Hadot (Ibid) comments on Seneca’s sentiment as follows:

If Seneca speaks of stupefaction, it is because he sometimes finds that he discovers the world all of a sudden, “as though [he] were seeing it for the first time.” At such moments, he becomes conscious of the transformation taking place in his perception of the world. Normally, he had not been in the habit of seeing the world, and consequently was not astonished by it. Now, all of a sudden, he is stupefied, because he sees the world with new eyes.

Hadot’s focus is on the practice of philosophy as a way of life, versus philosophy as a purely institutionalised, academic discipline, and I must stress here that in the essay Philosophy as a way of life, Hadot never mentions psychedelics. But the psychedelic experience as commented on by Wasson is described in exactly the same manner as Seneca describes the contemplation of wisdom, and Hadot emphasises the theme of transformation in a manner that further unites the effects of philosophy and psychedelics. In fact, Hadot indirectly provides some important insight into understanding what happens in the psychedelic experience by referring to some observations made by Bergson. Hadot is referring to Bergson in order to elaborate on the nature of the transformation brought about by philosophical perception. Having made strong links between the psychedelic experience and philosophy as practiced by the Ancients, I contend that the following account of the nature of philosophical transformation is fully coterminous with the psychedelic transformation. Hadot (1995:254) first identifies Bergson’s account of habitual perception, which is the perception aligned with utilitarianism and pragmatism, the modus operandi of the ‘advanced’ consumer competitive capitalist Christian industrial dominion-crazed ‘democracy’, or ACID (see Pittaway 2017: chapters 3 and 4), what I will soon refer to as the established model of humanity:

Life requires that we put on blinkers; we must not look to the right, to the left, or behind, but straight ahead, in the direction in which we are supposed to walk. In order to live, we must be selective in our knowledge and our memories, and retain only that which may contribute to our action upon things.

Habitual perception is contrasted with philosophical perception: These are Bergson’s words, quoted by Hadot (1995:253): “Might not the role of philosophy be to bring us to a more complete perception of reality, by means of a kind of displacement of our attention?” Hadot immediately comments on this philosophical ‘displacement of attention’ and emphasises the transformative power of philosophy as a way of life. It is important to note the relevance of these comments (1995:254) for what has been described about the psychedelic experience:

The ‘displacement of attention’ of which Bergson speaks… is in fact a conversion: a radical rupture with regard to the state of unconsciousness in which man normally lives. The utilitarian perception we have of the world, in everyday life, in fact hides from us the world qua world. Aesthetic and philosophical perceptions of the world are only possible by means of a complete transformation of our relationship to the world: we have to perceive it for itself, and no longer for ourselves.

There is much that can be said about this perceptual shift of our relationship to the world. I have argued elsewhere (Pittaway 2017:248-259) that this shift is of crucial importance for the ecological plight of the planet and its consequences for human ‘civilisation’: people seeing the world for itself rather than for themselves entails a dispensation completely different to ACID, which is the embodiment of exclusive pragmatism and utilitarianism that reduces nature to nothing but a standing reserve of resources for human consumption. It is not my purpose here to pursue this theme. What I am emphasising here is that the philosophical transformation described by Bergson and Hadot is coterminous with the transformation attained via the Eleusinian rituals and the psychedelic experience, and via this emphasis I assert that the psychedelic experience is of relevance to not only to philosophy as practiced beyond the walls of a classroom, but to any context in which the theme of transformation of this sort is foregrounded.

The transformational impact of practicing philosophy (versus merely talking about philosophy) and of using psychedelics is something that philosophers should be interested in for another good reason. Badiou (2009:74-75), who also does not mention psychedelics but does focus on philosophy and transformation, states the following:

Each time that philosophy confines itself to humanity as it has been historically constituted and defined, it diminishes itself, and in the end suppresses itself. It suppresses itself because its only use becomes that of conserving, spreading and consolidating the established model of humanity.

This is extremely bad news for any philosopher, or any philosophy, that wishes to address the problems of the present[38] with ‘more of the same’ that caused the problems in the first place: the problematic ingredients constituting the established model of humanity that is ACID. To address the problems of the present, it is necessary to look for remedies beyond the arena that caused the problems, i.e. beyond the Arena of ACID, and this is where the link between philosophy and transformational psychedelic rites of passage becomes so crucial. Assuming that one is interested in the transformative aspect of philosophy as depicted, to differing degrees, by Badiou, Hadot and Bergson, and acknowledging that the Eleusinian rituals are no longer on offer as a means by which to foster philosophical perception[39], it is perhaps the case that psychedelics present us with opportunities that, if taken, could help in transforming society for the better:

What today is resolved into a mere drug… was for [the ancient Greeks] a prodigious miracle, inspiring in [them] poetry and philosophy and religion. Perhaps with all our modern knowledge we do not need the divine mushrooms any more. Or do we need them more than ever?” (Wasson 1978:7)

For the purposes of this article, the mushroom is a symbol of a truly transformative experience, an experience that cannot, by its very nature (as depicted in this article so far), be ‘hijacked’ by the purely pragmatic and utilitarian agendas of ACID and its accompanying model of humanity – the initiate ineluctably sees the world anew[40], which requires seeing beyond the institutionalised, established model(s). Fortunately, the value of this truly transformative psychedelic experience has recently been acknowledged via studies such as the ones referred to in the first part of this article. An aura of reputability is beginning to accompany inquiries into the broad topic of psychedelics, a topic that may hold the key for collaboration across disciplines, cultures, and contexts.

Southern African indigenous cultural use of psychedelic plants

It is the case that in philosophical and academic contexts in Southern Africa in the early twenty-first century, considerable attention has been given to the issue of what an appropriate African philosophy and academy entails (I would add the issue of an appropriate African economy). Various focal points of this article may be able to contribute to this discussion, because the use of psychoactive plants and the induced ‘healing experiences’ have been part and parcel of indigenous cultures for many centuries, including African cultures. If I can substantiate this claim – that Southern African cultures did indeed make use of psychoactive plants, which induce in people a psychedelic alteration of consciousness – then I can make the following links in my argument: 1) The Eleusinian Mystery rituals were of central philosophical and cultural importance in Ancient Greece for a period spanning over two millennia. 2) The Eleusinian Mystery rituals almost certainly involved the use of a psychedelic/psychoactive substance, and absolutely did involve a transformation of consciousness coterminous with the psychedelic experience. 3) Philosophy as a practice, i.e. as a way of life and as philosophical perception, shares strong characteristics with the psychedelic state of consciousness. 4) Recent research into the effects of psychedelics confirms psychedelics to have profoundly transformative impacts on users. 5) Psychedelics (or psychoactive plants) have been used in Southern African cultural practices for centuries. 6) The use of psychoactive plants is an undeniable area of overlap considering points one to five.

The researcher J. F. Sobiecki has done the research that substantiates point number five above. In an article titled A review of plants used in divination in southern Africa and their psychoactive effects (2006), he found that of “85 species of plants that are used for divination by southern Bantu-speaking people”, “39 species (45 %) have other reported psychoactive uses, and a number have established hallucinogenic activity” (2006:333). He states that the “findings indicate that psychoactive plants have an important role in traditional healing practices in southern Africa” (Ibid). Sobiecki quotes (Ibid) the diviner Mahube with words that immediately foreground the similarity of Mahube’s experience to the psychedelic experience so far explored in this paper: “I eat medicines that work in my body like matches to dry wood. I do not open my eyes. It is not with my eyes that I see. My ancestors see for me. I see in a dream”. Sobiecki’s article is extremely well researched and referenced, and I need not reinvent this wheel, so to speak. Instead I will provide an extract that is typical of the thoroughness of the research and also indicative of the overwhelming evidence provided for the claim that psychoactive plants are widely used in indigenous Southern African cultural practice:

Some interesting terms for psychoactive plants exist, including bhayiskhobho (bioscope (cinema) in Zulu), otherwise known as the ‘mirror’ or ‘TV’, which refers to the effects of hallucinogenic plants such as the toxic Boophone disticha (L.f.) Herb. (see Hall 1994: 54). Another Zulu term, bonisele, describes several plant species that are used by initiate diviners to elicit divinatory powers and induce dreams of the ancestral spirits. The term is derived from the verb bona, and means “to see on my behalf” (L.C. Posthumus pers. comm.) or “to show me the light” (L. Maponya pers. comm.). The descriptions of the effects of bonisele plants on the initiate diviners are analogous with metaphysical ‘seeing’, transcendental enlightenment and revelation. An example of one such plant is Chamaecrista mimosoides (L.) Greene. Descriptive phrases for such plants also include ‘magical plants’ and ‘plants that arouse the spirits’.

In another article titled Psychoactive Ubulawu Spiritual Medicines and Healing Dynamics in the Initiation Process of Southern Bantu Diviners published in 2012, Sobiecki reports his findings as follows:

Findings reveal that there is widespread reliance on ubulawu as psychoactive spiritual medicines by the indigenous people of southern Africa to communicate with their ancestral spirits — so as to bring luck, and to treat mental disturbances. In the case of the Southern Bantu diviners, ubulawu used in a ritual initiation process acts as a mnemonic aid and medicine to familiarize the initiates with enhanced states of awareness and related psychospiritual phenomena such as enhanced intuition and dreams of the ancestral spirits, who teach the initiates how to find and use medicinal plants. The progression of the latter phenomena indicates the steady success of the initiates’ own healing integration.

Quite simply, in Southern African indigenous cultural practice, psychoactive plants play an important role, and they induce in the ‘user’ a state of consciousness that has at least some similarities to the psychedelic experience referred to in earlier parts of this paper. I share Sobiecki’s view (2012:219) that the psychedelic effects of the psychoactive plants used in Southern African indigenous cultures are generally less intense than in the cases of rituals elsewhere in the world where psychedelic substances are used, for example in the case of the Amazonian shamanistic use of ayahuasca. Sobiecki does suggest (Ibid), however, that the “purpose and results of the South American and South African plant use” is the same, i.e. “to learn healing knowledge”. This phrase, to learn healing knowledge, is a fitting catchphrase summarising the purpose of psychedelic use in both the Eleusinian Mystery ritual and the contemporary clinical applications of psychedelic therapies; it is also a fitting phrase for at least some aspects of the transformation brought about by philosophical perception in the context of philosophy as a way of life.

Considering the support just provided via Sobiecki for point number five, i.e. the point that psychoactive plants play an important role in Southern African indigenous culture, it is the case that the psychedelic experience is a commonality across points one to six. A common ground spanning across such a large expanse of time (i.e. from Ancient Greece through to medical and clinical contexts of the twenty-first century) and across such broad contexts (i.e. ancient philosophy, philosophy as a practice, philosophy as a transformational process, African indigenous cultures, and contemporary clinical research), is an invaluable tool for cohesion across contexts – it is a tool for inter-, trans-, and multi-disciplinary cooperation and cohesion, and one dismisses such a tool at the expense of such cooperation, as well as numerous other potential benefits. Rudgley (quoted in Roberts 2006) alludes to the danger of ignoring altered states of consciousness, and also some opportunities that can be gained from exploring them; Rudgley’s comments were made to motivate anthropological inquiry into altered states of consciousness, but the comments are relevant to any discipline:

Bearing in mind that humans have an innate need to experience altered states of consciousness, to ignore or repress our own natures in this way is to neglect our own capacities. What anthropology can do, by describing other cultures in which scientific and poetic approaches to truth are part of a holistic vision, is to remind us of the lack of harmony in the elements of our own second nature. It can indicate ways in which we may reach a better understanding of the importance of altered states of consciousness in both our collective and our personal lives.

Further implications

All of the features and characteristics of the psychedelic ‘peak experiences’ collated in this article are extremely positive. It is the case that contemporary psychedelic studies use psychoactive substances to achieve the peak experience; there is overwhelmingly convincing evidence to support the argument that a psychedelic substance was used during the Eleusinian Mysteries; and indigenous Southern African cultures employ a wide range of psychoactive substances. As mentioned earlier, there are some risks in the psychedelic undertaking. But as I have shown in this article so far and judging by the academic literature available on the topic, people who have used psychedelics responsibly have a deeper understanding of themselves after the experience, their places in the world, the world itself, and nature, and they conceive of being part of a bigger whole. They are happier, more optimistic, more grateful, see meaning and purpose in life, are more concerned about others, and so on. All of these are positive qualitative changes, changes that add up to a transformation of personal identity in the direction of a more actualised person. In the domain of collective experience, groups of people (i.e. communities) constituted by individuals who have had the aforementioned personal experiences, realisations, and epiphanies are far more likely to participate in a socially integrative and cohesive manner than if they had not had the experiences – this was hinted at in one of the studies referenced in the first sub-section of this paper, where ‘prosocial attitudes and behaviours’ were enhanced via the psychedelic experience. At very least, it would be extremely worthwhile to test this notion via further research and studies, i.e. the notion that people who have had a psychedelic experience are more likely to participate in socially integrative and cohesive manners. In other words, there are opportunities for further research into such an issue (as well as others), research that could be conducted in the spirit of multi-disciplinarity.

At an economic level, the opportunities for the growth of a psychedelic ‘industry’ are enormous, and this is again an area open to further research across disciplines. Such an industry would require ongoing research methodologically, qualitatively and quantitatively. Psychedelics would need to be grown or synthesised or both, and distributed and tested for safety measures. Practitioners (guides) would have to be trained to facilitate the psychedelic experience, and therapists would need to be trained for on-going follow-up psychotherapy sessions for the patients to successfully integrate the experience proactively into their lives. Psychedelic educational curricula and centres would need to be established, and teachers would need to be trained and employed to disseminate information. All manner of peripheral ‘services’ would be needed for the new psychedelic industry, thereby stimulating economic growth in a spirit of integration, social cohesion, and as I will suggest next, ecological sensitivity. In short, this is an ‘industry’ that would transform society in qualitatively and economically-quantitative beneficial directions.

In some of the studies referenced it was found that users of psychedelics developed a stronger connection with nature. This is important because it corresponds with the point made by Bergson, specifically about philosophical perception involving a transition from seeing the world for ‘ourselves’ to seeing it for ‘itself’. This transition is beneficial considering the ecological plight of the planet brought about by a human species operating under the assumptions of the materialistic Empire of ACID. People who have undergone the psychedelic experience, which is coterminous with the philosophical transition noted by Bergson, and who are accordingly more connected with nature, are unlikely to unquestioningly perpetuate obviously ecologically problematic practices (See Pittaway 2017: chapter 7).

The aforementioned beneficial personal, social, economic and ecological implications are reasons for hope in a dispensation otherwise dominated by the business-as-usual of ACID[41]. Previously disadvantaged communities, which are often constituted by the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa who are perhaps often culturally privy to the kinds of rituals in which psychoactive plants are used, can play important roles at all phases of the process in which rites-of-passage psychedelic ceremonies are conceptualised, tested, refined, standardised, and facilitated at the various stages that would constitute the process, i.e. pre- and post- ceremony integration of the experience.

Conclusion

Philosophy, and philosophers, simply cannot dismiss the psychedelic experience. The transformed perceptual state is an outcome of both the psychedelic experience and philosophy as a way of life – the ancients went so far as to equate philosophy with the ‘mystical’ state of consciousness often induced by the psychedelic experience, which is why the Eleusinian rituals (which transformed perception via an experience that either was literally psychedelic or at least fully coterminous with the psychedelic experience) were revered for so many centuries in Ancient Greece.

The psychedelic experience, coterminous with the transformation brought about by practising philosophy as the ancients did, shatters habitual perception, which is what Bergson suggested is the role of philosophy, a view shared by Hadot. Habitual perception is the purely pragmatic and utilitarian state of consciousness dominant in the model of humanity as it has been historically constituted, i.e. ACID, and Badiou suggests that philosophy is done a dis-service when the dominant model of humanity (i.e. ACID) is simply preserved. Accordingly, psychedelics can be seen as tools of transformation – indeed, psychedelics are being used in clinical contexts to achieve profound transformations in patients.

Science, in what might perhaps be the start of a turn toward the toppling of its historically dominant pragmatic and utilitarian character, has again started to focus on the profound impact of the psychedelic experience. The focus is still pragmatic in the sense that the experience is almost unanimously utilized for the treatment of psychological problems. But a consequence of the scientific focus on the impact of psychedelics is that the results show the experience to be inherently worthwhile, facilitating the transformation of the ‘initiate’ toward a fuller, actualised, integrated, reflective, aware self. Philosophy, if it is to be practiced in a manner free from ideological constraints, if it is to reconnect with the ancient practices from which it was birthed, if it is not to be confined to ‘discourse about philosophy’ and to on-going critiques of business-as-usual (strangely, critiques often in support of business-as-usual), can also pursue the opportunity to focus on this arena of transformative potential, and as a consequence partake in the exploration of altered states of consciousness that are relevant across cultures and contexts. It is with these thoughts in mind that I conclude with the resonant sentiments of Ruck (1978:17): “Now… those of us who have experienced the superior hallucinogens may join the fellowship of the ancient initiates in a lasting bond of friendship, a friendship born of a shared experience of a reality deeper far than we had known before”.

 

Acknowledgements

The author here acknowledges the Post-Doctoral research support provided to him via the NRF SARCHI Chair for Identity and Social Cohesion in Africa, as well as the research support he received during his PhD from the NRF and the University of the Free State.

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[1] Psilocybin is the most common mushroom molecule to produce a psychedelic effect.

[2] Lysergic acid diethylamide, known colloquially as ‘acid’.

[3] Ayauscha is the Amazonian brew made from several plants and ingredients, while DMT – N,N-Dimethyltryptamine – is the molecule that produces the psychedelic effect. DMT can be extracted and used in isolation from the brew.

[4] 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine. I do not consider MDMA to be a psychedelic in the same category as the other listed psychedelics. Phenomenologically it certainly has psychedelic properties, but it is also considerably different to the other ‘more psychedelic’ compounds. I list it here because MAPS, the multidisciplinary association for psychedelic studies, has focused on MDMA assisted psychotherapy for tactical reasons. MAPS categorises MDMA as a psychedelic, and I will follow their lead.

[5] Here is some commentary on the propaganda accompanying the war on drugs: “Exaggerated risks of harm have contributed to the demonisation of psychedelic drugs as a social evil. But although this dangerous reputation — generated and perpetuated by the often disproportionately stiff penalties for their use — is helpful for law enforcement, it does not correspond to the evidence. Rather, the social prescription against psychedelic drugs that hinders properly controlled research into their effects and side effects is largely based on social and legal, as opposed to scientific, concerns. To maximise research into therapeutic benefits without exacerbating real social harms a legal structure that recognises this distinction is sorely needed”. www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(06)68515-2/fulltext accessed 9 May 2018

[6] “[O]n 17 July 1971, President Richard Nixon declared what has come to be called the ‘war on drugs’”. And “Despite decades of battling against narcotics, the levels of addiction, trafficking and violence continue to rise. The war on drugs has failed”. Article by Ed Vulliamy at www.theguardian.com/society/2011/jul/24/war-on-drugs-40-years accessed 9 May 2018.

[7] They were not merely legal, but were also the subjects of considerable attention in the scientific world, most notably LSD: “Most of the interest in psychedelic drugs was related to psychiatry and, by 1951, over 100 articles on LSD had been published in medical journals (Dyck 2005:383). Psychedelics had caught the interest of a great variety of people from writers and ethnobotanists to doctors and the military. The interest was caused by a broad range of reasons from scientific intrigue and pure intellectual curiosity to artistic inspiration and spirituality. By the time the general public began hearing about psychedelic drugs, there was already an established tradition of literary and medical research into their effects and uses”. www.maps.org/images/pdf/history_of_psychedelics.pdf accessed 9 May 2018

[8] Wasson is “considered the discoverer of the magic mushrooms, the man who launched the psychedelic movement, and is also considered the father of the field of ethnomycology”. http://www.gordonwasson.com/2016/10/16/hello-world/ accessed 11 May 2018. Wasson’s various involvements in life are remarkably diverse and attention-grabbing. The same source lists 27 different interesting biographical facts for Wasson, among which are the following: Wasson headed MK Ultra Subproject 58 (in which species of psychoactive mushrooms were collected for their potential use in mind-control applications by the military); he worked for JP Morgan; he directed a pharmaceutical company; strong links are discernable between him and various members involved in the J.F.Kennedy assassination. Being beyond the scope of this article, these facts should be checked further for accuracy.

[9] In this article, I am not espousing support for the ‘recreational’ use of psychedelics, regardless of my personal opinion on the matter. In an interview hosted by Tim Ferris (see reference list, Ferris 2018; hereafter referred to as the FERRIS-POLLAN interview), Michael Pollan contrasts (at 26 minutes into the interview, i.e. 0:26:00) the recreational approach to the “orchestrated guided experience” – this latter approach is foregrounded in this article. The approach, says Pollan, is a “fundamentally different way of using the same chemical” used in the recreational approach. The orchestrated guided experience is the context of psychedelic-use focused on in this article. On the other hand, much later in the episode, Pollan points out that the vast majority of the scientific study of psychedelics is focused on treating ‘sick people’, but that their use in treating ‘well’ people should not be overlooked. This treatment need not be done ‘recreationally’, but certainly can be done in contexts less ‘clinical’ than the scientific study. Here is Pollan quoting Bob Jesse: “Jesse was ultimately less interested in people’s mental disorders than in their spiritual well-being – in using entheogens [a.k.a. psychedelics] for what he calls ‘the betterment of well people’”. See www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/trip-treatment accessed 14 May 2018. In this article I indirectly provide support for the claims that the ancient Greeks did, in fact, treat ‘well people’, that the psychedelic experience can help ‘well people better themselves’, and that the Southern African indigenous use of psychedelics also ‘betters well people’.

[10] And indeed any ‘older culture’ in which psychoactive plants were used to alter consciousness, which is to say all older cultures, with one notable exception being the Inuit, who had no psychoactive plants growing considering the climate in which they live – Michael Pollan mentions this in the Ferris-Pollan interview.

[11] I borrow this phrase, ‘the new science of psychedelics’, from the title of Michael Pollan’s 2018 book.

[12] Usually the ‘randomised double-blind approach’, where a psychedelic substance is administered to one group of test subjects, and a placebo to another group. Neither the medical staff nor the test subjects know who receives the psychedelic or who receives the placebo, thereby circumventing possible biases in observed results.

[13] This is a study sponsored by NYU. See https://www.nyucanceranxiety.org/ accessed 28 May 2018

[14] UCLA has also sponsored similar studies, for example a 2011 study titled “Pilot study of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer”. See https://www.clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00302744?term=NCT00302744&rank=1 accessed 28 May 2018

[15] The fact that word ‘mystical’ appears in the context of this clinical study (and a few more to appear in this sub-section) is important because it will appear later in this article again; the use of a psychedelic substance is explicitly linked to the mystical experience recorded in the quoted study, which is important to remember when the word is encountered in the context of the Eleusinian Mysteries, as well as in the context of philosophers being the ‘true mystics’.

[16] This is a study sponsored by Johns Hopkins University. See https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00465595?term=NCT00465595&rank=1 accessed 28 May 2018

[17] This study was also funded by Johns Hopkins University. See https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00802282?term=NCT00802282&rank=1 accessed 28 May 2018

[18] Note that these in-quote references are not included in the reference list at the end of this article. The in-quote references can be traced via the specific paper by Lyons and Carhart-Harris, namely “Increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views after psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression”.

[19] http://www.maps.org/research/mdma/ptsd/phase3 accessed 28 May 2018

[20] See the archives of articles and books at the MAPS, Heffter Institute, and Beckley Foundation websites.

[21] https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300070866/marihuana-forbidden-medicine accessed 28 May 2018

[22] Ibid.

[23] https://psychedelicsalon.com/members/psychedelic-elders/gary-fisher/ accessed 28 May 2018

[24] If a person has a predisposition to a psychological disorder, psychedelic-use may trigger the disorder. Pollan discusses this in the Ferris-Pollan interview at 1:14:00. It is one of the only known risks of taking a psychedelic, other than a person ‘freaking out’ from an unfamiliar experience and doing something to injure themselves, which is easily prevented if the psychedelic experience occurs in the appropriate set and setting; and, it must be noted, people ‘freak out’ and injure themselves for a variety of reasons. Regarding the potential for psychological problems to be ‘unlocked’ via the psychedelic experience, potential patients are screened heavily for such predispositions prior to being accepted for psychedelic assisted therapy. Pollan points out, however, that a person with a predisposition to a psychological disorder would, in the absence of a psychedelic experience, likely have their condition triggered by something else in life, such as trauma. Interestingly, as I have already shown in this article, psychological disorders are being successfully treated with psychedelics, putting under the spotlight the set and setting in which psychedelics are used; hence an unguided, recreational use of a psychedelic not being advocated, especially for the first few experiences.

[25] “The Sacred Way (the road from Athens to Eleusis) was the only road, not a goat path, in all of central Greece”. www.ancient.eu/article/32/the-eleusinian-mysteries-the-rites-of-demeter/ accessed 9 May 2018.

[26] Remember that the word ‘mystical’ appeared in various study extracts in the previous sub-section.

[27] See Hoffman’s entire pharmacological breakdown of the psychoactive ergot options available to the Ancient Greeks, 1978:8-11.

[28] See a summary of the objections by the commentator, Ivan Valencic in Jahrbuch fur Ethomedizin und Bewusstseinsforschung (Has the Mystery of the Eleusinian Mysteries Been Solved?) at www.psychedelic-library.org/paspali.htm accessed 9 May 2018

[29] I say ‘proper’ because I am denoting the ingestion of a sufficient quantity of a psychoactive molecule to induce an appropriately powerful state of altered consciousness. I am not referring to potentially comparable altered states of consciousness induced by, for examples, meditation or sex: proponents of the claim that ‘you can get there by other means’ almost always have not taken a psychedelic substance. See footnote 39 for further commentary on this matter.

[30] Synaesthesia was reported in one of the psychedelic studies featuring in the first sub-section of this paper.

[31] Pollan explains the neurological mechanisms involved here in the Ferris-Pollan interview.

[32] Remember that in one study it was reported that patients “rated their psilocybin experiences among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives”.

[33] In the Ferris-Pollan interview (00:39:00), Pollan describes the psychedelic experience as entailing a process of ego-dissolution. He comments that the experience of ego dissoulution “feels to people like a mystical experience”, and adds that ego dissolution “is a kind of rehearsal for death”, which is an insight into why the Eleusinian experience may somewhat prepare an initiate for the afterlife, and ease anxiety in cancer patients regarding their imminent deaths. On this topic of ego dissolution, I would add that it may hold the key to why some people experience ‘bad trips’ or ‘freak out’ or even have a psychological disorder triggered by a psychedelic experience – if the ego is extremely guarded (due, perhaps, to a past trauma or a narcissistic personality type) or over-inflated, then the experience of ego dissolution may be frightening or even itself traumatic.

[34] See classics.mit.edu/Plato/phaedo.html accessed 2 May 2018

[35] The Ferris-Pollan interview, 00:39:00.

[36] http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/phaedrus.html accessed 2 May 2018

[37] Of course, Wasson could have read Seneca’s work and quoted the comment about seeing for the first time.

[38] Whether it is the role of a philosopher to address the problems of the present is up for debate. However, as a human being informed by philosophy, one may be better equipped to attempt to address the problems of the present, and it is more often than not the case that philosophers (perhaps in their capacities as human beings) do attempt to address the problems of the present. See Hadot’s account of ‘communitary engagement’, 1995:274, wherein he depicts ‘philosophy as a way of life’ as something that does entail action.

[39] Hadot does not refer to the Eleusinian Mysteries in his essay, but rather suggests that philosophical perception can be attained “a number of exercises”: intense meditation…, the ever-renewed awareness of the finitude of life, examination of one’s conscience, and, above all, a specific attitude toward time” (1995:268). I have practiced meditation and engaged in the other activities mentioned by Hadot. My contention is that the psychedelic experience, facilitated in the appropriate set and setting, will do in a few hours what years of meditation practice and the like might do, and that the foregrounding of the transformative (psychedelic) experience facilitated at Eleusis goes some way in explaining the ‘philosophical’ perception valorised in ancient Greek contexts. I would encourage anyone to forge their own practice of meditation and contemplation, but it is clear that, in ACID, utilitarian demands leave very little time for the average person to take their practice to the necessary level at which a considerable shift in perception can occur. The right dose of a psychedelic ‘does what it says on the can’, to speak colloquially, and it does it extremely quickly.

[40] It is my view that this psychedelic quality of ‘seeing anew’ is one that may be responsible for some of the negative reactions people may have to the psychedelic experience. Seeing anew can be profoundly positive if the initiate has fostered the necessary focus (and this is where meditation, etc., can play such an important role in preparing for the psychedelic experience), or been guided by facilitators or therapists, to see the great potential of such a ‘cleansed’ perceptual platform. But the experience of seeing ‘the old’ or the familiar dissipate may also be extremely frightening if an initiate is unready for such an experience – the temporary ‘dissolution of the ego’ may feel like death proper!

[41] The business-as-usual of ACID is problematic for various reasons. An example is seen in the realm of ecology: Foster, Clark and York comment (2010:155): “It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Available evidence now strongly suggests that, under a regime of ‘business as usual’ with no substantial lessening of the drivers of environmental destruction, we could be facing within a decade or so a major ‘tipping point,’ leading to irrevocable and catastrophic climate change”. Business as usual has not slowed; on the contrary, it continues to accelerate, as do the various indicators of ecological stability – see Pittaway 2017.