Psychedelic Plants In A Time Of Ecological Crisis

{Some quick context:
This is the transcript of a talk that I gave at The Banana Tree Restaurant (Soho), in London, England on January 8th, 2019. I was speaking to an audience that I was told had either little to no knowledge of psychedelic or strictly stigma. There was a PowerPoint that went along with this as well but remains private for now. See post-script for further context (like why the hell I was in London talking about psychedelics at a restaurant). ENJOY!}

Good evening everyone,

As William mentioned, I am here to talk about psychedelic plants and fungi.

Psychedelic, is a term coined by Canadian psychiatrist Humphry Osmond back in 1956. It is formed of two Greek words, psyche and delios, and means “mind-manifesting” or “mind-expanding.”

There are a vast number of psychedelic plants, fungi, and even synthetic substances in the world, some of which have been used by humankind for millennia, each of which with the ability to dramatically alter our sense of self and of reality and, consequently, engender powerful and meaningful encounters with strange, wonderous, and often profoundly uncomfortable realms of the mind.

Many of you might already be familiar with ayahuasca, the shamanic psychedelic brew used historically by the indigenous people of the Amazon and recently by a growing globalized and diversified ayahuasca culture.

You might have heard the stories of incredible transformations from people you know or celebrities like Sting. Possibly you have drunk this powerful concoction yourself, maybe at a friend’s apartment, or in a traditional ceremony hut called a maloca, deep in the Amazon jungle. either way, you might have a sense of how beautiful it can be, as well as how dark it can get, but that ultimately it changes peoples lives, often for the better.

The experience of ayahuasca is one of several different psychoactive plants in the Amazon that have, over many generations, become central organizing experiences for the indigenous culture and cultural identity. But there is a greater history for psychedelic plants than just the Amazon.

Indigenous people all over the world have each had their main psychedelic plants, used for healing or religious purposes. There are the psychedelic cacti of the native Americans in the form of peyote or of the South American San Pedro of the Andean people, known to them as Huachuma.  There is the iboga plant of the West African Bwiti people.  Cannabis in the form of hashish for the Shaivites of India. And the teonanacatl, the scared psilocybin mushrooms of Mexico, which I had the blessed opportunity to experiences back in 2017.

Interestingly enough, modern historians even claim that part of the foundations of Western society as we know of it today, that of ancient Greece had a central psychedelic experience awakened by the ingestion the kykeon, the Sacrament used in the Rites of Eleusis. And although we do not know precisely what was in that drink, we are pretty confident that it was psychedelic in some form or another.

However, I am not here to talk about ancient history, this is but a segway into a broader discussion on how the modern use of psychedelics plants, fungi, and substances, in general, have the potential to benefit the world at large in a time of ecological crisis.

Now let’s pause for a second…

Some of you might have heard what I just said there and thought of Timothy Leary, dirty hippies and acid burnouts, people jumping out of windows and all the rest. I ask you to please set those thoughts aside.

I will not deny the faults of the 60s psychedelic counterculture, there was mass consumption of powerful psychedelic drugs in uncontrolled environments and with little understanding of the dangers that could come about with such irresponsible use.

Sadly, that time in the modern psychedelic culture sparked a sensationalised media campaign, igniting a stigma that has continued on since the late 60s and early 70s, the same stigma that, along with some very real social issues of the day, led to a blanket prohibition of all known psychedelics drugs in the united states back in 1971. Classifying them as schedule 1, claiming they had no medical value despite the incredible advances science and medicine was making with them at the time. That was the launch of the drug war, and it wasn’t long before that war went international.

One of the results of this over compensated prohibition was such massive costs and strict regulations on these drugs that all science and research was also effectively banned.

But Let’s shift direction here because prohibition and the origins of the stigma against psychedelics are historically complex topics and very politically charged. But suffice to say, the stigma against psychedelics in the modern world is not based on truth as much as politics and spin echoing out of their misuse in the 60s. So as I continue, please try to keep an open mind.

It’s been 40 years since psychedelic prohibition came into play and despite the lingering stigma still present in society, we are currently in a movement in science and medicine often called the psychedelic renaissance.

Psychedelic science and medicine has been exploding in the last decade, and huge advances are being made in the process, a good portion of which is being done here in London at Imperial College, from fMRI studies to clinical trials of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.

There would be a lot to talk about here if I were to go into the full depth of this science but I am mostly going to focus on the scientific discoveries around psilocybin for the moment, the active alkaloid in magic mushrooms, or as they are known here in the UK, liberty caps.

This is because it has the fullest breadth of research as of right now, it is a great general example of what the classical psychedelics can offer a person, and is most likely the psychedelic we will see offered in our therapist offices within the next decade.

Science has shown that psilocybin, in controlled settings

  • Be a potentially effective treatment for otherwise treatment-resistant depression, effectively resetting the brain to a non-depressed state. [sources here, here, and here]
  • To be a significantly effective agent in supporting smoking cessation, with an 80% abstinence rate after 6months (Johnson, 2016)
  • To effectively reduce depression and anxiety related to the existential distress of terminal cancer, increasing life meaning and optimism (Griffiths R. R., 2016)

It has also been shown to

  • Occasion classically defined mystical-type experience at higher doses (Griffiths R. R., 2006)
  • Creates a long-lasting positive impact on mental health (Griffiths R. R., 2017)
  • Increase the personality domain of openness, which is attributed to an openness to experience, appreciation of art, creativity, and emotionality (MacLean, 2011)
  • Somewhat surprisingly, it was also shown to decrease authoritarian political views (Lyons, 2018)

This mystical-type experience is an important one to consider, as what we have discovered is that with the proper structure and support, the administration of psilocybin can generate an inner experience akin to that which is described in our great religious texts and by our most mystical poets throughout history. Furthermore, it seems to be good for us as a majority of subjects had long-lasting positive impact on behaviour and wellbeing which was confirmed by their community as well, several of the participants reported their psilocybin experience to be amongst the most spiritually significant moments of their lives, alongside the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.

Now, Keep in mind the examples above are likely different from the type of psychedelic use you might be thinking about when someone uses the word. These studied psychedelic experiences happen within highly structured, medically supervised, contexts, often accompanied by psychotherapy in some form or another.

Which leads to a significant question — what about the people who are taking it outside of those contexts? The average person? Well, it turns out that classical psychedelics use, which includes psilocybin, LSD, and other serotonergic agents like Mescaline…. according to statistical analysis and surveys, compared to non-psychedelic users, people who use psychedelics.

  • Reduced rates of intimate partner violence as well as better emotional regulation. (Thiessen, 2018)
  • Significantly Reduced cases of psychological distress requiring hospitalizations as well as suicidality, compared to the average population. (Hendricks, 2015)

And, just about coming full circle, in a recent study, the use of classical psychedelics, after compensating for core personality types and the propensity for taking drugs in general, have been shown to contribute to pro-environmental behaviour.

Results suggest that lifetime experiences with psychedelics, in particular, may indeed contribute to people’s pro-environmental behaviour by changing their self-construal.” … is basically the model we have in our head about who we are. (Forstmann, 2017)

Now, this point here, about the potential of psychedelics to contribute to pro-environmental behaviour is the crux of this whole talk, but to fully grasp this, we need to get a sense of what it is that psychedelics do.

Because we can see the measured results in scientific studies, but if you have never had a psychedelic experience, it is easy to have incorrect ideas about what it is like.

Please keep in mind that what I am about to describe to you is a very general example and it is coming from both an interpretation of the sciences as well as my own, extensive, personal experiences and is packaged in mostly secular, psychoanalytical language

Each of us has an Ego.

We can consider the ego our operational sense of self, the psychological mechanism that defines who we are and who we are not. What is self and what is other.

It is common to associate ego with what we call egotistical behaviours, such as selfishness, greed, or arrogance. This is a part of the ego, but only a part, as the ego is not characteristically a bad thing. It is an evolutionarily adaptive tool we have developed that allows us the capacity to know ourselves in relation to others and to the world outside us, enabling ourselves the capacity to thrive as a social species.

The ego also interprets the world for us, based on the models it has formed throughout our lifetime, with the deepest foundations of those models forged in our early childhood life.

The ego is always there for us to ensure we know who’s who and what’s what so as to keep us stable and safe, protecting us from pain, emotional and otherwise. … It’s sort of our best friend in a way, but a stupid best friend.

It is a quite rigid and very poor learner, although it is always there for us, it can easily get what’s what wrong and who’s who confused. Also, its constant effort to protect us from emotional pain can be maladaptive, keeping us away from the emotions we need to feel, like guilt over mistreating others or the grief of a dead loved one, which paradoxically propagates further emotional pain. The ego’s tendencies towards emotional repression, defensiveness, and misinterpretation of context can get us in trouble personally and interpersonally, as I am sure each of you is intimately familiar with in some way or another.

Psychedelics… they disintegrate the ego. I mean this literally. Psychedelics disassemble the structural integrity of our sober sense of self as they alter blood flow in the brain, decreasing activity in the areas associated with the ego and dismantling the typical hierarchy of information processing within the brain.

As ego goes away, who we believe ourselves to be, goes away. This can feel like we are going crazy, or even that we are dying, which, to some degree is true. Who we think we are dies and reality as we once know it goes with it, for a time.

As the ego dissolves, so do the boundaries the ego maintains between self and other, as well as the boundaries between self and various aspects of the self, especially our emotions, which become highly-charged and potent. Often this confronts us with emotions we dislike or are afraid of, which I will refer to as the shadow.

The shadow is all the parts of ourselves we would rather not accept or acknowledge, consciously or not. It holds the emotional charge of all our past traumas and fears…. It also contains the emotions we carry within us but would, understandably, rather not feel: sadness, grief, hopelessness, worthless, inadequacy, loneliness.

As our ego dissolves away and the defenses that kept our shadow at bay goes with it, that shadow material can and often does rise to the surface. In an unsafe or unprepared context, this scenario will lead to what is known as a “bad trip”. However, in a safe and structured environment, such as the ones created for the research mentioned earlier or in ceremonial contexts such as with ayahuasca, where the person on the psychedelic is prepared and supported, this encounter with our shadow can be a powerful process of healing and transformation.

This is because as the psychedelics dissolve our ego and those dark emotions come in, they also increase autobiographical recall and unconstrained cognition. This means that our typical sense of time changes while various memories rise to the surface, present as if happening right now, filled to the brim with emotional potency.

We remember who we are and have been, all the good and the pain, all at once, while being able to make new, novel connections and creative insights about who, why, what and where to from here.

Furthermore, the dissolution of the ego means the separation between self and other dissolves, we lose primary identification as our ego, “I am James” no longer applies. I am not James anymore, at least not only James and so my shadow encounter may manifest not just as the deep grief and regret for all the times I hurt someone I love but also as the cumulative emotional charge of all the suffering in the world. I may feel the depths of my own sorrow as the sorrow of all the suffering of all the world, all at once.

But we also come face to face with more than our fears, we can, especially with psilocybin, experience an expansive sense of compassion or love or beauty. We feel this for ourselves, for whatever we are looking at or whoever we are with, sometimes we feel it as a fundamental force in the universe that is holding us, or perhaps as the very nature of reality itself. This can often come coupled with our shadow encounters, and we experience paradoxical states of deep pain and deep beauty simultaneously, like feeling the profound sorrow for all the suffering in the world while simultaneously feeling overwhelming joy for all the love and beauty in the world.

Without the typical boundaries between self and other, there is no distinction between what we witness and our sense of self. A profound sense of connection often arises from this, and it is not just that we feel connected, but that we are what we witness a connection to, we are one.

This is where we come back into the research that showed an increase in our sense of being related to nature and pro-environmental behaviour as a consequence of how psychedelics change our self-construal, the model in our head that defines who we are.

It is very common during a psychedelic experience to feel our connection to the planet and all of its inhabitants. Again, not just a connection to, but a sense of being one with, the earth is no longer the planet we live on, it is our body, or more creatively, our mother or our lover. When this blends with our enhanced autobiographical recall and profound emotional potency, both the light and the shadow, some incredible alchemy can happen within us…

The walls that hold my emotions down, and my sense of self in beneath my skin fall away, and I look upon the world outside of me. But it is no longer outside of me, it is of me somehow. It breathes and moves, it is alive. The birds, the trees, the water. They are alive as I am alive, and they are not they but me too. The earth breaths as I breathe. I am of the earth as it is of me. Its body, my body, I am beautiful, the earth is beautiful. My actions have consequences, on me and on others and on this living earth. Its pain, their pain, it is me too, and there is so much pain, and so much beauty, and it is worthy of love. I am worthy of love. I don’t deserve violence upon me, upon the beauty in me and in the earth, the earth it does not deserve this violence, and the tears fall, they fall in grief as each once living creature gets a tear and each species now gone extinct gets a tear, and each mountain, forest, and ocean no longer able to sustain life gets a tear and the grief, and the grief and the beauty, the beauty of this life and of this land and of this gift to be alive and held in such beauty, even in the midst of such pain, and the tears fall, each one a glimmering diamond of gratitude, gifted into my being and grafted onto my soul as I know, at the core of me, I can never unsee this.

Whether or not these experiences are a psychological trick of the substance or an expression of some truer reality doesn’t matter. When we are deep in a psychedelic experience, surrendered to the swell of emotional honesty in all its shadow and all its light, witnessing the world around us not just an extension of ourselves but as us and of us, it changes us, and I believe, when in the right context, it changes us for the better.

In regard to pro-environmental behaviour, I imagine it isn’t a stretch to this crowd if I were to propose that much of the destruction and violence in mankind and the ecocide resulting from it, is bred of wounded people who lack an empathetic connection to or at the very least a wakeful understanding of the consequences of their actions. When we experience the earth as ourselves and feel her pain as our own, I believe we are much more likely to act accordingly, and apparently the science agrees.

Ingesting psychedelics, in a safe, supported and structured context melts the barrier between ourselves and the outside world while forcing us to wrestle with the darkest and most beautiful aspects of life at a level of significance that demands respect and reform. What we witness within a psychedelic experience can never be unseen.

So, when we return to baseline, our sanity returns, our ego returns, we hold something profound that needs to be given meaningful place in our lives, often this is done by altering our lifestyle and behavior to honor what was learned in that most sacred of experiences.

This is why people come out of ayahuasca ceremonies with a sincere call to help save the rainforest. It is why many people I know have gone vegetarian or vegan after exploring psychedelics in a mature context. It is likely why the 60s psychedelic culture, even with all its faults, was so intertwined with the environmental and anti-war movements of the day. It is why psychedelic users are less pessimistic. It is why they are less likely to abuse their intimate partners. It’s why we are here tonight.

A safe, structured and supportive psychedelic experience can change us, profoundly, forever, in a good way.

Over the last 40 years, we have had many, many examples of how psychedelics can go wrong. And we are just starting to get a real, scientifically verified understanding of all the ways they can go right.

Before I finish my talk, I am going to show you a clip from the documentary Neurons To Nirvana, a wonderful exploration of psychedelic science and medicine in the modern world. Although you won’t see the names of the speakers due to this being a clip from close to the end of the film, these are some of the most well-established and respected people in psychedelic science, medicine, and anthropology, including founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for psychedelic studies Rick Doblin, anthropologists Wade Davis and Ralph Metzner, ethnobotanists Kathleen Harrison and Dennis McKenna as well as a few others.

Finally, I want you to get a sense of the point of this talk.

These psychedelic experiences don’t last if they do not find a place in our lives, which includes our social lives. This is called integration, and you can consider it something akin to digesting food. It doesn’t matter how organic your carrots are if you don’t absorb the nutrients into your bloodstream. It doesn’t matter how powerful a psychedelic transformation feels, if it isn’t integrated into our lives by way of our actions internally and socially, then those transformations won’t hold.

So in a world of political and ecological distress, a world that needs more people acting compassionately, with greater ecological awareness and drastically less authoritarian political views, we as the larger society would do well to give those among us who experience psychedelics, a space to be seen and supported without shame or stigma… because doing so will not only have a positive impact that person’s well being but perhaps on planetary integrity as a whole.

I am not telling you to go out and take psychedelics, they are not for everyone, and unless you are doing one of the trials at imperial college, they are still illegal in this country. But I am telling you that whether or not you agree with it, psychedelics are being used by the people around you and soon enough, in your local therapist’s office. And this might be a good thing.

We have rediscovered a tool once used by our ancestors, and it appears as though it might help to support our specifies in a time of social and ecological crisis, let’s do our absolute best to acknowledge those amongst us willing to come out in support of it.

With that, I would like to thank William for taking the risk of featuring me here this evening and for being a living example of how mature psychedelic use in structured context can help contribute to resolving the ecological and social issues we face today.

Thank you.

Post-Script and Final Comments

I’d like to add some final comments here about psychedelics and environmental behavior. One of the pitfalls of working with psychedelics is losing what we learned when coming back to our default lives, where the worst of us was cultivated and sustained. Regardless of how powerful, beautiful, or humbling an experiential merger with nature/divine/beauty/God can be, that doesn’t mean we are by default different people. The difference comes in our actions and in how we show up to the world around us, our community, our family, and our society.

When it comes to what we need right now as a global species from those of us privileged enough to causally be reading a post such as this, I invite you to consider two questions to yourself:

  1. what is that I know I need to be doing about the troubled times we are in but I am making excuses not to?
  2. is that thing in alignment with the truth of our unity?

Psychedelics or not, the planet needs us, we need us, to make smarter, more environmentally conscious choices and although our current societal structure makes it difficult to identify and act upon those things we need to do, we still need to do them to the best of our ability. I don’t know what that is for you, but I trust that you do, even if you don’t think you do, yet. I believe in us.

That brings us to the post-script further context I mentioned at the beginning.

Going to London was a spontaneous opportunity offered to me on behalf of William, the owner of The Banana Tree. After seeing me speak at OZORA festival he felt I would be able to represent a mature presentation on psychedelics for his restaurant’s new vegan menu launch.

It was after a powerful experience with ayahuasca that William was shown that he needed to do his part in protecting the planet by supporting people in eating less meat. So he crafted an absolutely delicious vegan menu for his restaurant (and made 40% of his menu vegan/options). He wanted to give psychedelics a place at the table for the menu launch given what a valuable role it played in his efforts. He chose me to represent their positive potential to a crowd of (mostly unfamiliar, perhaps stigma informed) journalists, influencers, and businesses people. It was a very interesting and valuable experience!

I bring this to your attention to build greater context for the talk, but also as an example. William was called to do something and though it might not seem much to some of you, it was the best and most influential thing he could actually accomplish and he did it.

Back to my two questions above, what is the best you can do?
Go do it.


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***Featured image courtesy of Simon Haiduk.





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