Something is being lost. Can you feel it? I experience it as a tightness in my chest. Millennia of knowledge and reverence for plant medicines are being extracted, blended into a capital machine, and spun out as brands and products to treat parts of the machine as they break down. With this will come a new kind of prohibition - the medicalization of access. The magic of psychedelics are being medicalized.
How did we get here?
If we look back in our Western paradigm - the way we think of things - stemming back to the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment, we view nature as a separate "other." This goes even further back to Christianity as well - nature viewed as a scary, sinful place for men to dominate. Back in the 17th century, influential philosopher Rene Descartes deepened this dualism, putting mental reason on a throne where it does not belong. "I think therefore I am," can be stated as, "I'm real because I think." Everything else is just out there. Because of this we see the universe as essentially dead. We're made of stuff. Consciousness is just an epiphenomenon - a bunch of cells, made up of a bunch of atoms, blended into a brain that "thinks therefore it is." Philosopher Gilbert Ryle and later Arthur Koestler famously critiqued this Cartesian "dogma of the Ghost in the machine."
In the world of Artificial Intelligence they call this pseudo-problem the "hard problem of consciousness." They believe that if you make a complex enough computer, you can capture consciousness in code. I can't help but think of this as one more form of extraction. Find what's interesting about humans, put it in a centrifuge and separate its parts. Synthesize. Make sure to patent and claim as property for capital investment along the way. This is exactly how it works with drugs - take them from indigenous people, from countries that are poor, and create versions 2.0 and 3.0. Make them better (because they can always be better). Maybe even sell them back to those people. And with an extra twist of gas-lit internalized colonization, maybe even get them to believe what we sell them is better than what they have always had.
When I think about what will "get lost" as psychedelics become commodified, it is my hope that the power of these medicines could help us break this cycle of extraction.
Connection with nature has been the norm throughout history. This brief chapter of extreme dualism is the aberration. It's a blip in the already brief arc of humankind - a few hundred years where our perceived separateness from the natural world has led to the consumption of it at unsustainable rates. The separateness - the disenchantment, the existential nihilism - not the connection is what is different. It is destroying our planet now.
In different cultures in the world there is a deeper connection with nature. We are a part of nature. There's not a sense of ownership of land, because you can't own something that you are integrally a part of. You can't own your mother or your father. You are embedded in a matrix of things that are enchanted and alive. You want to have a relationship with all these things, be it animals, plants, mountains, and even things that exist that don't have material substance.
What many westerners have come to discover is that plant medicines are portals by which they can reconnect with this alive, enchanted world. They see how they can connect with other beings in nature. How a forest can be alive and breathing. How much can we learn from it. How, through opening up what Aldous Huxley called our own "sacramental vision," a psychedelic plant medicine can be considered a Master Teacher.
This is the much deeper concern that indigenous people and in many cases people of color have: that psychedelic commercialization is actually a confrontation between two completely different visions of the world. One of those visions - the dualistic, the one that extracts and commodifies, a view from which we have received many short-term benefits - is destroying the world. It harms not only plants and animals, but harms and traumatises human beings. Many of our institutions are designed around antique laws and punishment, objectification and use of each other, and divisions around race, culture, class, sexual identity, sexuality, and religion. We want to restore or build the connection that has been lost, forgotten, or even not yet discovered, to that which is true, that which is our birthright. As psychedelics are commercialized, I fear that the other vision, the one that will save it, the one of enchantment and wonder with each other and our living Gaia - is at risk of being lost forever.
Trying to change from a dualistic paradigm is what the late Willis Harman called a "global mind change," where consciousness is the fundamental reality, not physical matter. Transpersonal theorist Michael Washburn believes that is it possible for us to return to connection with the dynamic ground of nature in a new way that includes reason, while removing it from the Cartesian throne. More recently, author Jeremy Lent has written extensively on the possibility of "relating to ourselves and the universe in a way that is integrated, embodied and connected."
But one psychedelic experience alone, or even many, does not create that change. Whatever container our medicine work is held in, the container we return to - the reality of the world we live in, the world our brain's Default Mode Network plugs into - is a dualistic one. We need to say, "what do I do in this world, now?" The possibility is to heal some of the wounds both inflicted and experienced by Western culture with these medicines. In order to do that it requires a lot of humility and reflection, and deep integration of the experiences to manifest our insights into action. It requires what researcher Brene Brown calls daring greatly - the courage to escape from the siren call of accepting the world as it is, the world we've made, the world that is like an ouroboros eating itself alive, and become active in the arena to live in our truth and create a new world integrally aligned to our highest values.
What I want to say is this: despite what some may tell you, these are not just drugs. Taking them is not just for "tripping," which reduces them into yet another addictive form of entertainment. They can also be much more than a salve to treat psychiatric diagnoses so that we can merely endure a mad world. These plant medicines are a potentially life-saving, life-affirming opportunity. They need to be treated with the reverence they deserve, that indigenous peoples have given them for thousands of years. We have to do the work from within and without - to wake up, grow up, clean up, and show up - to allow these medicines to teach us how to heal ourselves.
And then, maybe, that tightness in my chest will begin to release...