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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

The Long Trip: The Prehistory of Psychedelia

Devereux, Paul. (1997)
New York: Penguin.

ISBN: 0-14-019540-8

Description: Paperback, xx + 298 pages.

Contents: Preface, acknowledgments, glossary, introduction, 5 chapters, epilogue, reference notes, bibliography, index.

Excerpt(s): One aim of this book is to demonstrate (rather than to merely state) that our modern culture stands out in the long record of human history because of its difficulty in accepting in an orderly and integrated way the role natural substances, primarily from the plant kingdom, have played in aiding mind expansion. This book provides a thorough overview of what is currently known about the ancient use of psychedelic drugs for ritual and spiritual purposes. It offers the interested general reader a useful single source of information on the whole subject area. As part of this inquiry, it is important to evoke some understanding of actual experiences with psychedelic substances. A failure to register the experiential qualities of hallucinogens would make it more difficult for us to understand the fascination they have held for human beings throughout all known time. So although the main focus here is on the long human usage of hallucinogenic substances—the "Long Trip"—we will also hear first-person accounts of those pioneers who have studied the substances in recent and modern times. (page ix)

As soon as I got home, I poured a tall glass of water in which I dissolved both sugar cubes. I waited impatiently for friends who were to accompany me on my "trip"—I knew enough not to take such a substance alone. When the first couple of people showed up, one of them sipped a teaspoonful of the solution, and I downed the rest. A few other student friends arrived as I settled down and waited for the psychedelic movies to begin . ...

It was The Silence that gave sound the space to be. In a flash I understood the biblical phrase "The peace which passeth understanding." At the same time, I noticed that I had arrived at a state of bliss. In fact, it was a holier feeling than that, more a state of grace. In a serene way I reasoned that this was because I was simply here: the trains of thought that normally chained me mentally and emotionally to yesterday and tomorrow had dissolved. I was experiencing the truth of the matter—this is always all that I ever am, just here and now. Everything else is an illusion. What passes for normal rational mentality is in fact the grossest of illusions. I had read these kind of ideas in literature dealing with various forms of mysticism, but I wasn't intellectualizing now. This was simply the direct experience of a fact. "Now" was clearly and obviously a movable feast that persisted forever. Linear, sequential time and the cargo of memories, regrets, concerns, images, and emotions that time brings with it, had been removed. When the grime of time was washed away, I saw with astounding clarity that the pristine undersurface of eternity was always there. (pages 3-4)

I felt that if I washed away, I would dissolve into such an infinity that I could never return. Why was I disappearing? I realized (actually, in some completely indescribable way, I saw) that both time and space were dissolving. I was entering eternity through some other door this time. It became transparently obvious to me that if time and space unraveled, then the coordinates that defined my existence as a person would also disappear. With an inexpressible flood of fear, I realized that I would, in effect, die. My ego-self was bouncing in and out of existence as time and space waxed and waned around me, in me, through me, but when I finally went "out" something was still me, though beyond the confines of the personality that I identified with, still existed. (pages 5-6)

But in societies where hallucinogenic substances were, and in some cases still are, regarded in a sacramental way, they actually help bind and order society. With suitable safeguards, organization, and planned application, some of those substances could have a similarly important function within our society. From one perspective, our failure to incorporate hallucinogenic experience into our culture puts us out of step with the entire record of human experience. It is our culture that is eccentric. (page 11)

I suspect that until the psychedelic sixties the possibility that hallucinogens were not only being used in prehistoric cultures, but might even be responsible for the appearance of certain types of pottery, not to mention economic and social aspects of prehistoric society, was almost certainly inconceivable to most archaeological investigators. It simply did not occur to researchers to look for this evidence. Over the last forty years, general familiarity with the idea of psychedelic experience has become widespread throughout Western culture. ... With either personal experience with hallucinogens or awareness that such experiences are possible, it is perhaps not surprising that researchers are now finding evidence previously overlooked in the archaeological record. (page 39)

We can see from this wide-ranging survey that the psychedelic experience was deeply insinuated into the beliefs and practices of the Old World, at least in its ritual and magical aspects—and to a limited extent, in its religious life too. Just how extensive this influence was in the development of Western culture awaits further investigative scholarship, which in turn relies in good measure on the willingness of modern Europeans to be prepared to accept that the emergence of their culture was accompanied by the sort of ceremonial drug practices still surviving in traditional societies such as those to be found in the Americas. (page 103)

Although religious historian Mircea Eliade referred to the use of hallucinogens as "a decadent form of shamanism," Furst reports that shortly before his death Eliade confided in him that these ancient American dates for hallucinogenic usage forced him to change his mind on this issue, and that he had come to accept that there was no essential difference between ecstasy achieved by plant hallucinogens and that obtained by other archaic techniques. (page 108)

Because the Americas have not been subjected to the same cultural sequences, invasions, influences and overlays, migrations, and all the myriad sociocultural complexities of the Old World, they represent a kind of "Mesolithic fossil," culturally speaking. Through the study of the lifeways and practices of ancient American societies, "one can creep up on Eurasiatic history and protohistory so to speak from the flank, and along an immense time depth." Native American shamanism provides us with an echo of the Eurasian spiritual impulse that has reverberated down the long corridors of time. (page 109)

... The Bushman rock art of southern Africa is the archaeology of ecstasy par excellence. Not only is it the longest record of human artistic activity, it is also the most heroic expression of consciousness distinct from our mono-phasic (i.e., single mind-state) culture. It reminds us, from mountainside to riverbed, from sea to shining sea across a whole subcontinent, that there are other, additional ways of perceiving the world. As our Western culture eclipses other peoples and lifestyles, so we increasingly risk losing sight of a broader, wiser, and older understanding of the mind. Fortunately, the ghosts of Bushmen now extinct can have a last word: out of Africa, from time out of mind, comes the visionary imperative for us not to become too narrowly and exclusively entrenched in just one mode of consciousness we call "normal." (pages 168-169)

There can be little doubt that the zigzags, dots, grids, lattices, chevrons, and other elements in North Native American rock art in general, principally in western and southwestern locations in the United States, relate to entoptic experience in trance states, and that most of such rock art belongs to shamanic traditions. In his guide to the rock art of the greater Southwest, Alex Patterson identifies imagery at a wide variety of sites in Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, and California as entoptic, singling out those specifically resulting from jimson weed intoxication. (page 175)

We have also noted the psychedelic content of woven art such as that of the Huichol Indians. Andrew Sherratt has theorized that hallucinogenic entoptic imagery is reflected "in the geometric designs of traditional Persian and central Asian carpets" and that the sensations of flying produced by many hallucinogens may have been the source of the idea of the "flying carpet." It is a fascinating chicken-and-egg question: Did the marvelous "tapestries" so often reported in entoptic and construal stages of trance visions come from memories of carpets and textiles seen, or did hallucinogenic "tapestries" provide the original inspiration for such artwork? R. Fischer has similarly speculated that "both the rose windows of Gothic cathedrals and the mandalas of Tantric religions are ritualized hallucinatory form constants." Stained-glass windows and mandalas are, again, images frequently used when people describe geometrically based visions in hallucinogenic sessions. It is possible that these most august forms of decorative, architectural, and religious imagery come from the depths of all our cultures, and speak to us of altered consciousness. Psychedelia probably underpins our most treasured religious iconography. (page 192)

The core of the issue is that developing intelligent policy requires that we "know drugs." The taking of hallucinogenic substances for medical and psychological research or with the serious intent of expanding direct personal psychological and spiritual experience ought not to be lumped together with "substance abuse"—the irresponsible ingestion of substances purely for "kicks," as psychosocially-driven escapism, or because of the demands of physical addiction. Hallucinogens are powerful substances, and do need to be subject to social control. This should not be beyond the ability of society to organize. Cultures throughout history have managed to channel and use the human interest in these substances and experiences . ...

We have seen that other, older societies used the psychedelic experience to strengthen, renew, and heal the spiritual underpinning of their social structures. The ever-deepening social unease that Western civilization seems to be caught in is the real source of our "drug problem": natural hallucinogens are not the problems in themselves; it is the context in which they are used that matters. If there were orderly and healthy structures and mechanisms for their use and the cultural absorption of the powerful experiences—and knowledge—we could separate these experiences from the culture of crime that surrounds them now. The problems are not in the psychoactive substances themselves, but in society. (pages 240-241)

The essence of the psychedelic experience is spiritual, which can mean religious (though not necessarily). It takes the psyche, the soul, into realms far beyond material reality, where the workings of the mind and the very universe are revealed. These experiences are by no means always blissful and serene. They can be painful and terrifying. But they can also be transcendental. For many people, just one such experience may be enough—especially if it is undergone in a supportive environment where the maximum benefit can be obtained and retained. No hallucinogen can endow a soul with "permanent spiritual enlightenment." No drug is a substitute for spiritual discipline and attainment. But when the mind or soul has once been in these transcendental realms, it "wakes up," as it were, and the far-reaching potential of human spiritual experience becomes direct knowledge. Subsequent spiritual effort, by whatever means or disciplines, is thus informed. Spiritual reality isn't merely belief or guesswork anymore, it is certainty, it becomes actual memory. This, of course, is the nature of initiation. This seems to have been the principle behind the Eleusinian Mysteries, the only really instituted psychedelic experience the West has ever had. It is cause for profound regret that our culture does not encompass such an experience within its mainstream structure now. Nevertheless, with four decades of widespread psychedelic experience within our modern society, there have to be more people alive on Earth at this time with direct knowledge of transcendental realms than at any other single period in the history of the planet. This weight of experience clearly has and will inevitably continue to find its ways to influence the mainstream culture. But mainstream recognition and accommodation would transform such a cautious growth into a phenomenal flowering. (pages 246-247)

The best course for all concerned would be to seek ways to order and harness the quest for alternate mind states through the use of physically harmless and relatively harmless hallucinogens, to remove them from the criminal sphere of influence and profit, to encourage the positive effects of the psychedelic experience to be harvested for the good of all, and to minimize the potential psychological dangers by arranging a non-alienating, nonthreatening monitored context for their use. If this were done, criminal organizations would have the carpet pulled from beneath them, and the marketing of genuinely dangerous substances would be exposed and isolated as never before, while the social, intellectual, scientific, and philosophical benefits of relatively organized psychedelic experience could at long last be allowed to flow to the culture at large. By the same token, those who use, or who demand the right to use, hallucinogens, have the responsibility to become more active in restoring deep psychedelic experience to a more sacramental status, such as it enjoys in tribal, non-Western societies. To fulfill its potential the psychedelic experience needs to be seen and used in a higher context than merely as another choice for recreational hedonism.

Whatever the decisions that are made in these matters, however, one thing is certain: the Long Trip will continue in one form or another into the haze of the future just as surely as it has emerged out of the mists of the past. (page 259)

Compilation copyright © 1995 – 2001 CSP

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