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Psychedelics


John Buchanan
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         Last year, a number of us organized a conference at Exeter University on philosophy and psychedelics. This has been an interest of mine for almost fifty years and it turns out that it is becoming a rather hot topic around the world.

         Very early in my explorations with psychedelics, I began to wonder about their implications for the nature of reality, as well as for my deeper nature. This launched an exploration that culminated in my ongoing involvement with transpersonal psychology and process philosophy. After about twelve years of searching, I discovered (or was led to) Whitehead’s thought, which has proven most adequate to addressing my questions concerning the epistemological, metaphysical, and phenomenological implications of psychedelic experiences, and for integrating them with science and everyday life.

         I wonder if anyone else has an interest in this topic, or has other thoughts to share.

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Open Horizons
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I am interested in how Whitehead's philosophy offers a paradigm for appreciating multiple states of consciousness, multiple dimensions of reality, and the role of a divine agent in helping heal individuals and community through various forms of creative transformation.  I've written a little on this myself, impressed with the map of consciousness offered by Stanislov Grof. I call it Whitehead and the Transpersonal mind. 

https://www.openhorizons.org/whitehead-and-the-transpersonal-mind-can-exceptional-experiences-help-save-the-world.html

Would love a response to my article or, equally if not more important, hearing the thoughts of others.  

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Pando Populus
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My first and only sustained hallucinogenic experience came by way of a soup with dear friends and key figures in the gay movement, Mark Thompson and Malcolm Boyd – partners at the time, and married once it became legal. Both were spiritual and civil rights leaders:  Mark as a writer and gay rights activist with contemporary shamanistic interests (as well as being a good cook); and Malcolm a writer, Episcopal priest, and civil rights activist from before the Freedom Rides. It was just the three of us, on a sunny Saturday at their home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles something like three+ decades ago.  The Saturday was a down day for me, before an all-day conference on Sunday with John Cobb, David Griffin, Frederick Ferre, and others focused on content development for a “new worldview” documentary television series we were trying to dream up and launch (we had PBS and BBC on board, and people from David Bohm to Frank Gehry to David Hockney involved).  Anyway, Mark assured me that after a bit of soup and a pleasant Saturday afternoon in the sun, I’d be in great shape for the next day. 

What unfolded over the next few hours has remained a defining experience for me ever since.  At first I thought nothing special about our relaxing afternoon other than that I was still a bit hungry after our lunch.  But then I closed my eyes as I laid on the grass in the front garden and set off on a trip through the universe that I’ll never forget.  It was both real and fantastical, but not confused with everyday reality – I knew exactly where I physically was and that if I opened my eyes I’d no longer be flying through the universe but positioned on a Silver Lake lawn. I was certainly not asleep and it didn’t seem like a dream.  But every time I closed my eyes I stepped back through a portal.

I soared, playing, and as I did, I’d come upon doors of various kinds, hanging in the midst of a universe of stars; each door was also its own portal, which I’d open and through which I’d enter into one kind of experience or another.  After many, many such doors and short adventures through them all, I opened one to find a dragon – like you’d see drawn in a traditional fairy tale.  It wasn’t terribly frightening, but however fairy tale-like it was serious enough to concentrate my mind.  There was a heap of armor nearby and shield and sword, and I assumed I had to suit up.  I got nearly all the armor on as the dragon was thrashing about and seeming threatening.  Then a voice from the universe called me back and said, “Why do you feel you have to fight the dragon?  It will make such a bloody mess all over the floor.  Why don’t you play with it?”  And so I took the armor off and moved in to play.  It was rough, but I didn’t get hurt, and so we wrestled around a bit like I guess you do with dragons and I got tired and stepped back into the universe to continue to soar and went on my way.

The next day at our "worldview" conference, I was going through the lunch buffet with Frederick Ferre and told him what had happened, with apologies for any nonsense that might have come out of my mouth that morning on the other end of such a fantastical trip.  Tell me all about your adventures, he enthused, and then I’ll tell you all about mine on LSD -- which, by memory, he said had been when he was at Harvard.  And so we swapped stories over the meal. 

And that was that.  Life returned to no-more-dragons normal.  But what stands out all these years later, other than the moral of the dragon story, is the intensity of the overall experience that has stayed with me ever since, its total break with everyday reality even as I was fully aware the break was happening, and its population with events that however extraordinary represented themselves as being fully and really real – even more real than normal experience, because they had a depth to them and were pregnant with meaning.

Strange, too, that I’ve always been satisfied with this experience.  It was extraordinary and wonderful but not necessarily something I’ve needed to repeat.  If my friend Mark were still alive, with Malcolm at his side, and I had a chance for another soup of whatever concoction it might have been, I’d love to take it and see where else I might go.  But it was an experience that was so full and complete that I’ve never felt the need for more but very happy with the memory, including the memory of recounting it now. And of course I’ve always been guided by the insights.

This is a long way round the block in saying how it is that I’ve always resonated with John Buchanan’s work and the application of Whitehead’s thought in framing what we think of as exceptional experiences.  Interpreting them as part warp and woof of reality honors the way they represent themselves and opens the range for thinking about human experience.

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Jared Morningstar
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Hi John and others,

This is definitely a topic near and dear to my heart. Besides working with the Cobb Institute, I also help out at the Psychedelic Medicine Association, which is a relatively new organization that attempts to connect healthcare professionals with relevant developments in psychedelic science as these therapies become more mainstream and patient interest/demand increases. 

On the more philosophical side of things, I wrote my undergrad thesis for my degree in religion on psychedelic experiences, specifically those induced by N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). It was a phenomenological study which attempted to understand these experiences as authentic mystical experiences through William James' classic Varieties of Religious Experience

I tried to do a lot in this work (far too much, I would say, looking back on it), as from there I tried to argue that the phenomenology of this experience, in its structure, provides insights into the metaphysical nature of reality, and that this metaphysical nature aligns with the essential metaphysics of the various world religions, particularly as expressed by the mystics of the traditions. 

There were a few sophisticated phenomenological arguments I crafted along the way, so I still look back on this project favorably even if I now recognize it as over ambitious and have since amended my views on certain topics. I would be happy to share this paper with anyone interested.

Nowadays, I think the theology of imagination developed by Henry Corbin is perhaps the most effective lens for psychedelic experience as a whole, though I also see why many find great resources in Whitehead to this end. Corbin's thought is helpful because I think it gives a robust account of the whole spectrum of psychedelic experience, from mild perceptual changes, to fantastical visions, to mystical union—and it gives a coherent story linking these together, rather than treating them are separate, bounded types of experience.

I haven't written on this in depth as of yet, but it's a topic well worth exploring. 

Jared

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Open Horizons
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I would like to see your paper, Jared.  Like you, I'm interested in mysticism, and have often thought that Whitehead's philosophy offers a way of distinguishing different types: awakening to the divine Mind and its timeless potentials), feeling absorbed in divine Love (consequent nature), awakening the entangled, inter-becoming of all things (principle of relativity), encounters with spirits (shamanism), and awakening to the primacy of the present moment (Zen).  Plus so many more.  All have in common a dropping away of the sense of private ego and a sense of the numious.  All are "mystical" in a certain way,.  In your own work, how did you understand mysticism? Looking forward.

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