Last winter, I sat in a juice bar in Chapora, the last sketchy enclave of Goa, grateful that it still existed amid a sanitized string of luxury beachside retreats and respectable family holidaymakers. Chapora, a winding little backwater of low-huddled bars nestled along a dirt track lit with strings of underpowered lamps, is what the Dark Web would look like if you turned it into a film. What I could make out of the hushed conversations suggested that most of its inhabitants were engaged in some nefarious transaction or another – drugs and dodgier things than that, mediated by taciturn Russians and Israelis, punctuated from time to time by cows ambling sedately past. Outside the juice bar, a man who was using a seated cow as a backrest skinned up a joint and handed another man, shaven-headed in mercenary rather than monastic mode, a very tiny piece of paper. My heart wrenched in nostalgia. I hadn’t seen anyone unsavoury in possession of a tab of acid for a very long time.
Once upon a time, psychedelics meant acid or magic mushrooms, and both these things were solidly unrespectable. Getting hold of them meant acquiring shady intermediates, Chapora-fashion: people with improbable whiteboy dreads who inhabited scary places. If you wanted acid you had to meet a man with a name neither real nor semantically probable in a dodgy pub and then hang out at his squat for the afternoon in order to mitigate his dealer status, admiring the wall hangings and trying not to get too stoned to leave.
My housemates and I squandered our first trip watching late-night horror on Channel Five, convinced our self-nominated sitter was Jesus. Someone came over after a night out, found a tab of acid in the sofa, and got lost wandering the North Circular. Set and setting – the notion, in contemporary psychedelic studies, that managing the mindset and physical environment of a psychedelic experience carefully is critical to its success and safety – wasn’t something we paid much attention to.
Psychedelics were a taboo thing to admit to liking. There was a lurking sense of the indelibility of it, that once you had taken psychedelics you would lapse several degrees into crankiness and never be quite the same again. The Sixties myth of the acid casualty – psychically broken and ranting at the Man when not jumping from high buildings convinced he was an orange – held fast, not helped by the heroic efforts of the self-styled psychedelic priesthood of the time to talk relentless amounts of nonsense. Timothy Leary and friends had a lot to answer for.
The common-or-garden acid anecdote tends to come with a punchline whose aim is to illustrate the improbable wonkiness of perception of the hours that preceded it. The punchline should, ideally, contain a delusion and an existential threat. ‘And then he stood at the second-floor window, convinced that he could fly’ is a good example, and one that has successfully crossed into popular culture as the key acid peril. There used to be a tacit understanding that all accounts of psychedelic use must contain a punchline in this vein, indicating their teller’s acknowledgement of the silliness of the experience but containing within it a bit of rock’n’roll swagger, for they had done something scary and lived to tell the tale.
Like most social courtesies, this was designed to make their respondent feel better about the situation: relatively few people took acid, because it scared them, and undermining the significance of an experience with self-effacing humour is a tried and tested British one-upmanship minimisation tactic. Furthermore, it denied the possibility of transmitting pretentiousness, which was the greatest sin of all. But there was a benefit to the self-effacement too, for it effaces taking oneself too seriously and any certainty of conviction. It imposes humility on proceedings.
Acid was a silly drug. It made people giggle like kids, which was fine; the risk was that it might make them take things or, worse, themselves too seriously. Accounts of mystical experiences were pretentious. Talking about the nature of reality was pretentious. Ego-death was pretentious unless you described it as a massive brainmelt, supplying detail regarding where exactly you passed out upside down in an enuretic heap for comic effect. You could, just about, tread a path of mystical experience adorned with bathos and get away with it, but you had to be careful.
If you lived in a city you knew that psychedelics were consumed mostly by rural crusties with few options, people straight out of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, because they were the only stuff available. Shrooms were there for free up a hill if you lived in the sticks. Acid lasted a whole day for less than a fiver. The downside was that it rotted your brain and made you talk to fairies in the hedgerow. It had indelibly poor consequences for your musical tastes. You might run the risk of liking psytrance.
Up the road from Chapora, a party was coalescing in a patch of bamboo jungle that had not yet been eaten up by development. Flyers advertised DJs with names oddly reminiscent of organelles who, presumably, took too much acid in biochemist grad school. Pencil-thin Russian women mounted motorbikes driven by unsmiling men, distressed monochromatic layers flapping in the wind like a noughties All Saints photoshoot. Jeeploads of Indian party girls glittered in all directions, standing in huddles on the tops of trucks held static in the traffic. At the roadside, a couple of boys, tanned deep from a season away from home, walked wild-eyed through the red dust kicked up by too many wheels.
A bunch of twentysomething tech kids from Bangalore chatted to a German with a vast blonde turban of interwoven dreads, almost certainly with some pharmaceutical transaction in mind. The fume-choked intersection had become an unlikely global crossroad. Ten years ago, the party people were almost exclusively white; now they weren’t, the new exclusivity bounded instead by schooling, wealth and minority music and drug interests. I once had a flatmate in Berlin who observed that you tended to see the same people at parties all over the world, for we were living in the era of global tribes. This was one node of a bigger, interconnected thing; people came and went, across boundaries fluid to the shapeshifting educated few, in a kind of hippy Interzone, a Hanseatic league of colleges, parties, laptops on sofas and beaches.
While fewer people than we sometimes think did acid in the Sixties, those who did talked about it a lot. Rather like veganism, the use of psychedelics is a fundamentally honourable thing that does itself disservice by over-proselytising. Former Harvard psychologist and High Priest of the psychedelic movement Timothy Leary and the ostentatiously spiritual gang that coalesced around him at his Millbrook estate became notorious for their bombastic self-importance, intoning the sanctity of the trip and generating wild philosophical and cultural theories based on their latest visions, playing religious pick’n’mix with wild inconsistency from Hindu, Buddhist or Judeo-Christian traditions according to mood.
They wrote books like The Psychedelic Experience, an excruciating version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead peppered with shouty caps exhorting the reader to ecstatically throb their way into the unity of being in a piece of theological zealotry whose only acceptable outcome was full megadosed ego dissolution. Their output was an odd bundle of prescriptive dogma on how to trip and how to live with a peculiarly Biblical capacity to impose certainty onto ineffable experiences.
More thoughtful proponents of the Middle America-busting futuristic benefits of acid, like the novelist Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster gang, got drowned out by the noise, at least in the popular imagination of the time. Despite setting themselves out as satirists rather than ideologues, the Pranksters’ games inveigled themselves into a way of being that would have a lasting impact on the mindsets and technologies that shape the world we live in now. The irony of the toxic solemnity of the Learyites was that they fatally undermined the credibility of a whole domain of drug experiences for a generation. There is nothing like a bout of visionary narcissism to discredit everything you have to say.
Headline nutters like Leary aside, the collateral damage of psychedelic indulgence wasn’t so evident as time passed: back home, in long child-imposed exile from the city, I knew immensely sensible Herefordshire school gate mums who had once taken acid like sweets at churchyard raves in their teens. Every autumn saw kids from the Valleys weave ancient Fiestas up the narrow lane to Hay Bluff to pick bags of magic mushrooms to sell back home, running the gauntlet of bored police looking for something to do but aside from this, psychedelics seemed to be dying away in popularity to other drugs – the novel psychoactive substances, or ‘legal highs’, that were far more lethal than the illegal drugs that preceded them, and, of course, our old friend booze.
Nobody seemed to touch them any longer and yet the way people talked about psychedelics was changing. There were articles in the news about the various clinical trials using them to deal with depression, addiction and end-of-life anxiety. The sorts of people who talked about them were changing too. Without chasing psychonauts, they kept on popping up in unexpected places: a Johns Hopkins psilocybin researcher at an unrelated academic conference, a consultant clinical psychologist who sang the benefits of regular ayahuasca retreats at the pub. Something I would rarely have talked about to strangers was becoming less rare and less conversationally taboo.
It was only when I attended Breaking Convention, a biennial conference on psychedelics straddling developments in neuropharmacology, harm minimization policy and holotropic breathing workshops, that I realized the extent of the shift in who the acidheads were. There were some of the old type still – one hammered American guy gunning for a shag in the horny upswing of an acid trip as everyone disbanded for dinner at the end of a long day – but not many. There were no acid casualties to be seen, only psychonauts, earnest explorers of the realms of the mind. It was an event celebrating some of the substances with the sketchiest associations out there, and everyone was exceptionally nice.
I couldn’t put my finger on the exact demographic of this tribe, because there wasn’t one. There were sprightly old ladies with flowers in their hair. There were several shamans. There were skinny youthful science geeks and middle-aged couples who looked like they did lots of yoga. The middle-aged and old people had the smile-creased shiny faces you only get by being significantly lovely for a very long time. People talked about environmentalism, philosophy, spirituality.
The standout talk was not directly substance-related. It was about uncertainty, and why we are enriched, personally and politically, by being at home in it rather than seeking to impose our own certainties onto others. She talked about drinking ayahuasca in the dark, and the power of the unknown and unknowable that resides there. Coming to an understanding with the darkness, the not-knowing, and feeling OK about it was something we could learn from in a world obsessed with the quantifiable and progress driven by the accumulation of data and money. Beyond it, she argued, we could come to a more instinctive sense of how things are and how to negotiate them.
I climbed the hill in Greenwich Park and stood beside the Meridian, watching the towers of Canary Wharf and the city beyond float above the heat-hazed river. I thought about certainty and how the notion of it had collapsed the first time I took acid, replaced by a conviction, if such a thing were possible in a post-certain world, that what had been unassailable edifices of fact were built on shifting sands and might collapse at any moment.
In the dissolution of fixity, all you have to work with is what you perceive in the moment, unfiltered by old social moralities. Stripped back, you feel raw joy and pain; with no remaining boundary between self and other, these things are part of a networked empathy that never quite retreats to its previous boundaries. The melting away of all the things that you thought were solid has a lasting emotional effect on the judgements you make about the world. What you feel in the moment takes ontological precedence over what you know, or what you thought you knew.
Certainty is authoritarian in character, and, in its own self-belief, creates enemies, for you are either with it or against it, and when you are against it you must be a liar, for provable facts form an exclusive set in the Venn diagram outside of which are falsities. And yet half the people down the hill were trying to compete in that factual arena. The conference, and all the booming coverage in the media, had made it clear that there were authorities in the field, and that the way to get important and useful changes to happen in the world, to help, for example, people suffering from trauma or addictions or end-of-life anxieties, was to be authoritative about it.
The serious people, for the most part, wore suits as an indication of the gravity of their work. That felt appropriate; when, in David Nutt’s blistering session on reforming drug policy, I found my view obscured by someone with exceptionally silly hair – a diagonal explosion of dreads in ombré shades of yellow and green, as though they had been dipped in bodily fluids – I experienced a moment of rage at the notion that they were tarring important developments with their outdated crusty brush. They could not be an ally.
At the end of the last day, the veteran psychedelic researcher James Fadiman recruited participants for his microdosing study by videolink and you could hardly move for people in the lecture theatre. The air of utopian positivity was infectious. People were finding themselves happier, more productive, doing more exercise, eating more healthily, even going vegan, giving up or cutting down on smoking and drinking, behaving better towards friends and lovers. If you looked around the room, you could see that the sorts of people expressing interest in microdosing were already of a happy, productive and beneficently-oriented type, but no matter. It looked highly promising, like the first intimations of a mass psychic breakthrough into a new and better era.
I texted an old friend, amused at the existence of a movement with its own name for something we had done for most of our early twenties: taking a fraction of a tab here and there to while away an underemployed day in the mindset of delighted five-year-olds, finding simple things like a walk on the Heath or an outdoor swim notably beautiful. Now that it had a name, I saw that microdosing was everywhere: if you believed the many features being published on it weekly, there were no straights left in Silicon Valley, deployed metonymously for a technocratic global Brahmin class that swept across all the fashionable enclaves of the planet. Ayelet Waldman’s memoir, steeped in artistic Berkeley privilege, was part of the same expansive ideology. Cure depression; improve your coding; impose mindfulness without the hard work; work, paradoxically, harder at your paid work, and find meaning in it. Something that had once been considered the maddest and most chaotic thing you could wittingly do to your mind had become outcome-focused.
Fadiman’s book The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide was practical, readable and compelling. One of my favourite unexpected trends was the post-trip proclivity for gardening. Rather like the end of Candide, where the only possible response to the madness all around is that ‘we must cultivate our garden’, respondents increased their time outside, tending to their environment with renewed dedication. Among a number of first-person reports of early high-dose experiences and more recent microdosing practices, it contained one irksome passage, in which a New Yorker expounds upon the unsatisfactory nutritional practices of her fellow subway passengers while detailing her superior ‘exquisitely nourishing’ homemade quinoa salads. It was a moment of psychedelics-as-wellness, a spiritual one-upmanship mediated through food choices, that went against the grain of ease and humility in the other reports.
There is nothing new about one-percenters writing the world’s stories, but, far from inciting the radical overturning of social order promised in the moral panics of the 1960s, the brave new world of the respectable tripper seemed just as heavily correlated to education and social class as ever. It also had its own ideology, ineffable at first and resistant to any moral system but which, in its love of outcomes and progress and the sanctity of individual desires, was as neoliberal as you could get.
This intersection between the psychedelic world and the global elite had been a half-century in the making. If Millbrook was an experiment in radical psychedelic spirituality, the Merry Prankster faction of Sixties psychonauts evolved into a network of utopian ideas about how to live with a pragmatic and technological bent. They were fascinated by the opportunities of information technology and the capacity of the entity we would come to call the Internet to smash any remaining totalizing narratives of truth. It would be the end of authority.
One of the prominent Prankster visionaries was Steward Brand, who created radical new spaces for psychedelic experiences and, more broadly, human connection, in the form of the Trips Festival. Brand’s experimental spaces were aimed at eradicating the hierarchies and fixities that characterised social and professional life in the postwar West.
The desired outcome was not pure anarchy so much as a fluid and networked existence of collaborations, ephemeral gatherings, a response to the moment rather than permanent plans. Today’s urban professional and social landscape of highly-educated internationals moving from city to city, working from a laptop in a gig economy, dating on Tinder and partying at festivals is the realization of some of that Prankster ferment. If acid didn’t create postmodern living as such, it might well have hastened it.
One of the metrics used to measure long-term perceptual shifts in psychedelic research was “openness” – the degree to which one feels positive towards change and the unknown. Openness was the new buzzword in political demography too, post-Brexit and Trump, collapsing the old left/right distinctions and replacing them with a kinship/globalist axis that correlated mostly with educational attainment. A year ago we used to talk – until more pressing political disasters came along – about the problems of the new educated urban precariat, the risky flipsides of the benefits of liquid ultramodernity. Once upon a time, that world was a utopia to aspire to.
When people talk about setting their intentions, it is really just a New Age way of describing key performance indicators. The psychedelic experience itself remained resistant to the imposition of outcomes – it was still the act of getting lost, going adrift, and taking stock of what was seen as you come ashore. But the particular common qualities of those psychedelic revelations – all that inconveniently hippyish stuff about staring at the sky, finding god or beauty or some sort of pressing value in the fragile natural world around us, the capacity of love to overcome fear – began to be adopted as outcomes in a wellness-obsessed age. And you only seek enlightenment when the rest of your hierarchy of needs is taken care of.
Psychedelics were Huxley’s moksha – the entheogen of the enlightened Palanese Island utopia – rather than Brave New World’s escapist soma. It is easier and more appealing to take the lofty path and opt for moksha when your existing comfort zone facilitates it. Any substance that reveals more of the world, rather than concealing it, runs the risk of revealing the bad as well as the good. The advised setting for the ideal acid trip – a beautiful home, access to a safe outdoor space in nature, little risk of being disturbed – is a place that, in the urban world at least, generally needs to be bought. The mindset, though less obviously commodifiable, is no less prone to benefit from the security bestowed by financial comfort. It might have been the case that, in true meritocratic fashion, those of us more inclined towards enlightenment took morally superior drugs and happened to be the people with better education and more money, but it didn’t seem terribly likely.
As such, it felt less surprising that the new acid culture overlapped so heavily with power and privilege. Its illegality only compounded this: you needed the knowhow, connections and cash to open a Bitcoin account, risk losing money, work out how to navigate Tor. Moreover, if you are doing something illegal and are likely to need outside space to enjoy it, it helps if that space is private. Outside the urban world, it was a different matter; the people I knew who grew up in rural areas like Cornwall or Herefordshire tended to come across acid at free parties, which took place in ancient broadleaved forests or churchyards in villages where everyone knew everyone, and everyone knew the police officer who would eventually come to shut the party down. Ponies, someone once told me, were brilliant at times like this, because your pony knew the way home when you no longer did. Neither area was economically affluent, but that sort of high-trust environment lent itself to twelve hours of vulnerability in a way that no urban teenager could.
There is a ready supply of heroin available in most cities, but it only predominates in areas abandoned by hope. Escape drugs find the people who need them. We switch off socially with alcohol most of the time because not-thinking is a relaxing experience, shrinking critical capacities into grunted bonhomie. You can be in a dark, unbeautiful place and enjoy a night off in the pub. You can have a job you do not love, go home to a spouse in the spare room, and, pissed, none of it will matter too much. Booze lubricates the less-than-ideal into something bearable.
The problem with psychedelics is that they make everything matter a lot more. They animate the lurking detail of our lives. All of those small troubles we might drink away on a Friday night loom large, demanding answers.
The myth of the bad trip was that you would get sucked into a vortex of darkness provoked by this, and it would never end. Your mind would be permanently broken. It is one of those misconceptions part-founded in part-truths: LSD is an unusually long-lasting drug, wedging itself, according to recent research, into serotonin receptors in the brain long after its half-life had been exhausted in the blood. Most people encounter a fear, some hours in and a bit exhausted by the intensity of the experience, that it might last forever; the other flipside of being high for a long time, and fractious from tiredness, is that you can get distressed more easily, much like a child at the end of a long day. We live with social rules that encourage us to suppress our perceptions of things we do not like much of the time; we are inclined to shelve concerns about things that might be awkward to resolve, like work or important relationships; we lubricate friendships and partnerships and our own sense of self with small and big lies.
The “bad” in the bad trip is usually a psychic battle of some sort, a realization that something is not right. What ideally follows is a resolution on what might be done about it: an acceptance of past sadnesses or a decision to change something – but in order to do that the amount of badness and sadness in the world needs to be manageable, and a certain amount of resilience needs to be there to hold it in its place.
If that resilience was not propped up by a comfortable life, it was hard to see how the radical utopian possibilities of psychedelics would ever be more than a minority affair. If you weren’t already one of the lucky few, your best chance of pharmaceutical enlightenment was to be exceptionally unlucky first by means of trauma, addiction or end-stage cancer.
This seemed, at best, like a missed opportunity. The threat to our times was closedness, fixity, unshakeable convictions of righteousness. People who voted for slow fascism, nudged by Facebook likes, not doubt-provoked to check themselves or others, people whose consciousness had long sedimented into something small and tribal, people for whom there was no irrepressible querying voice wondering whether all of this was OK – if our comfortable world was in a state of psychic disarray, it was a disarray displayed in the pages of the Daily Mail and the burst capillaries of mid-price supermarket wine drinkers. That old Keseyesque trope of individual madness opening a window onto the greater madnesses and injustices of the world had never been more relevant.
It was clear, amid the high-minded environment of ecological idealism at Breaking Convention, that ayahuasca was the cool new kid on the psychedelic block. Its psychotherapeutic and overtly mystical discourse – stern talkings-to from Mother Vine and animal metamorphoses – gave it gravitas, for anything overseen by shamans went firmly into the spiritual rather than party bit of the Venn diagram. Ayahuasca was therapeutic. It fixed your head and it fixed the world. It came with its own authentic cosmography. It made you behave better towards yourself, others and the planet.
Waiting on the steps of the evening venue in the sunshine for the music to start, I got chatting to some people who extolled the life-changing benefits of the authentic ceremonial experience and – I like to think gently, although it probably wasn’t – interrogated them on their need to be in the jungle for it. The desire to have the snakes and jaguars and conversations with plants had to be cultural appropriation for the intellectually lazy, ready-made mind memes for those incapable of generating their own metaphors even with pharmacological assistance. Even the tech-hating Unabomber pointed out that indigenous cultures tended to be ferociously patriarchal and morally restrictive. That didn’t seem very liberating.
It probably helped, so far as respectability was concerned, that nobody thought of ayahuasca as a recreational drug – the puking and shitting put paid to that – and the implication of the two-week trip into the jungle to a far-off land whose laws and philosophies were radically different to our own meant that it didn’t even seem that illegal.
Arrogance did little to kill my curiosity. Without thousands of pounds burning a hole in my pocket or childless weeks to head off into the wilderness, how to go about it was less obvious. Nearly a year later, I got a connection for a ‘ceremony’ in Britain. I assumed the ceremonial description was a ruse, a way of imposing legitimacy on something that would not, discomfort aside, be much different to taking shrooms in a dark tent. I found the notion of ceremony and oversight an imposition on what should be the blank purity of experience. It felt like the clock was ticking; the Psychoactive Substances Act, Theresa May’s fanatically illiberal ban-‘em-all swansong as Home Secretary, had not yet passed but would soon.
I took a Friday commuter train to the farthest reaches of the Thames estuary. It was thick with tired, wet people. Rain beat hard against the windows and, although the equinox had long passed, the sky outside loomed near-black. It was unseasonably cold. At the end of the line I scanned the platform for fellow travelers. There were some mums with buggies and people reading the damp Sun. It all felt quite unlikely. I jumped into a taxi and drove past boxing gyms and caravan parks, emerging on a desolate stretch of coastline where an incongruously hippyish garden hid behind the last house on the street, all dreamcatchers and crystal fairies and green men in the trees. At the end was a tipi, where people in woolly hats were unrolling mats, warming themselves by the fire in the middle and chatting.
There was a girl who rushed, authoritatively, to hug everyone and wish them love and light and who couldn’t wait to gossip about another circle of ayahuasca drinkers and why they were wrong. She debated, with no-one in particular, whether we were in the age of Pisces or Aquarius, and denounced polyamory as deviant. She was very keen to attend to the fire, which seemed to be the shamanic equivalent of doing the flower arrangements at church. The organiser was not keen on this and demoted her to stacking logs at the fire’s edge. She snorted some powdered Amazonian bark from a handcarved Y-shaped nose device in ostentatious retort, and rocked.
Hours later, the place was so full that latecomers were huddled in the cold damp doorway. Between the blazing fire and wall-to-wall bodies, it had warmed up. People peeled off outdoor garments. Much like church, those who knew the game had dressed for the occasion in white, bright attire, which was what you did at Shipibo ceremonies and therefore operated as a badge of time spent on authentic Amazonian pilgrimage. People spoke of how long they had been drinking for, and it took a few minutes of listening in to realise that they weren’t mostly alcoholics seeking a miracle cure, referring instead to the “medicine”, which was how ayahuasca was referred to in ayahuasca circles.
Had it not been for the lack of space in which to do so, I would have nodded off by the time the shamans arrived. There were multiple shamans and a clairvoyant, the organizer said. I liked the organizer, who was calm and down to earth, even if he wore trousers only comprehensible to an experienced psychedelic explorer. He did the housekeeping spiel: where it was and was not permissible to puke, or “purge”; correct deployment of the composting loo; the importance of setting one’s intentions as the ceremony begins and focusing united love towards Pacha Mama; and then the shamans arrived, picking their way elegantly amid the bodies, and seated themselves at the front of the fire.
Everyone took it in turns to kneeling in front of the shaman for shot glass of purple goo and a blessing. People belched with spiritual dignity. The shamans ushered spirits in and out with incantations and sacred branches, pausing as though to take the measure of their efficacy and then repeating their rituals with deepening insistence. We sat in meditative piety but you could feel the doubt rising. It was as though they were trying to drum up spirits from the dead land, and trying to take this odd gaggle of cold Londoners out of their ordinary reality at the long, cold end of the working week into a higher order of being, and that there was nothing much to work with.
They built the fire and did another round of drinking. A subtle trippiness started to take over. The sense that everyone was quietly and awkwardly waiting for something to happen ebbed away.
Some people cried, and were attended to, and stopped crying. The shamans made their way around the tipi with blessings, staying longer with some than others, as though they had identified things to address. People took it in turns to play music and sing. It was impeccably calm and well-mannered. It was orderly. It was how I imagined Quaker prayer meetings to be, but in a tipi and with more bodily functions. It felt as though the place was suffused with a spirit of beneficence, and whether you took that to mean the shared mindset of its occupants or actual spiritual entities or vibrational energies, whatever your feelings on the religiosity of the setup, it seemed like something had happened to create a haven of uninhibited familial warmth from the dark-clad disparate strangers who had arrived hours earlier.
The next morning, we sat around the fire talking about lives and hopes and the shape of things to come like old friends, for there is nothing like communally breaking the shackles of the mind as a bonding experience. People exchanged names of shamans. You needed to be with a good shaman; a bad shaman was worse than a quack, and might actually do evil. The denouncer of polyamory had stopped denouncing things, and turned her intentions instead to an explication of levels of vibration and how we would in time adapt to the demands of Aquarius which, from what I could make out, involved veganism and shifting our plane of existence to a new energetic plane; any attempt to further unpack what that might involve was met with a change of subject.
Everyone was in a good mood, though, and felt relaxed enough to share, for the most part, that they had arrived there in a state of psychic disarray for reasons that varied from person to person. I found that months of anxiety and tearfulness at broken relationships and professional nerves had dissipated. The world outside, even on a bleak April morning of diagonal rain at a less-than-idyllic estuarine bus stop, broadcast beauty and trust.
Taking psychedelics seriously, treating them, in a Learyesque phrase that still made me retch a little, as sacraments, appeared to have merit. It was, of course, possible that I had been cured by shamanic intervention, for even in the most secular imagining of events the shamans were shaping the experience and, through their management of the space, moulding the temporary plasticity of our minds. I had no idea what their ministrations consisted of, but they were gentle and authoritative in character, and that alone might be enough.
The authority of the shamans – the deference paid to them by the crowd, the belief in their godlike ability to hold and intervene in the space – had to be responsible for much of the professed curative quality of ayahuasca, unless you believe in elves and shapeshifters as real entities, which I didn’t. The shaman was a deus ex machina, able to zoom in and fix troubles, inside and out. Sometimes it is helpful to believe in a higher power; it just feels safer that way. Sometimes we need to be held and healed.
The validity of the set and setting mantra and all that stuff about setting intentions began to hit home. It wasn’t just about avoiding harm; it was about seeking good. Psychedelics are agents of chaos, sowing disruption and smashing up the corridors of the mind, mostly for good and, occasionally, bad effect. Once upon a time the acidheads were agents of chaos too, adopting an anarchic stance on everything – society, religion, food, sex – and testing their drug-fuelled revelations in experimental communes that mostly collapsed under the weight of unachievable utopianism or the more banal pressures of keeping all those lovers happy.
What if we needed less fragmentation, less anarchy, more order? In these more urgent times, breaking down society into chaos no longer felt very cool or clever. It was all very well to have fluidity, flexibility, the freedom to swim in and out of cities, love, employment, but it also left us lost and vulnerable. What if radical uncertainty was an aspiration better tempered with some deeper precepts, such as orienting oneself towards other people and the earth with love? The sheer religiosity of the ayahuasca circles, with their common New Age-y belief framework and external focus on healing the planet, provided a security lacking in most solo psychedelic adventures.
It brought to mind the character alignments in gaming, with their good-evil and chaotic-lawful axes. Acid made you less rule-bound and more kind, shifting you into the domain of the Chaotic Good. (If you give the same set of responses on Political Compass, you end up hovering somewhere over Bernie Sanders or Mahatma Gandhi in Left-Libertarian; someone out there, I hope, is writing an app to superimpose famous political icons onto the alignments, or vice versa.) But all we really knew was that the move away from rules was a move away from the rules that existed now.
In a world teetering on the edge of an ecological apocalypse, the hyper-technologised utopia of personal fulfillment that looked so perfectly futuristic a generation ago was starting to feel dated. The draw of the Neo-primitivism of ceremonial psychedelics lay not in an absence of rules and boundaries, but in a drawing of them that sat more neatly with our times: here, rather than losing yourself completely in an ecstatic bubble, you could lose your self and see it reborn and see its place in a fragile cosmography of other selves and lives. You emerged with a new morality of care and preservation, buoyed not by a revelation of the possibility of pure free will but of the intricate network of existence in which you were bound.
On the train home to Wales I read William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. James, writing at the turn of the last century, quotes a number of reported mystical experiences characterised by a loss of ego boundaries, a merging of all things into one and a felt perception of some pervasive force for good underpinning it all. One of his interviewees calls the force for good the ‘Cosmical IT’, an ingenious stab at naming the un-nameable.
Varieties’ religious experiences bear remarkable similarity to Erowid trip reports, including James’s own dalliance with nitrous oxide, in which he famously gets to grips with the mind-bending nature of Hegelian absolute idealism, a more theoretical Cosmical IT, for the first time under the influence. James and his interviewees, like today’s canon of trip reports, are remarkably consistent in their metaphysical conclusions to Leary: a story of oneness and all-pervading sentience beyond what looks at first like the void behind reality. James’s affable commentary makes the same basic ideas – the collapse of ordinary reality, the embrace of uncertainty and the new, the trust in what is out there in the world – feel commonsensical and coherent in a way Leary often did not.
James also offers a wry insight into the vogue for the New Thought – a prototypical New Age ‘Religion of Healthy-mindedness’, with its wellness obsession and chanted affirmations and, most egregiously, a solipsistic rejection of the existence of evil from its rose-tinted bubble. It was this last bit – the denial of badness, sadness and downsides – that discomfited me about some of the discourse of the microdosing movement. It felt like a method of tweaking one’s own wellbeing without any thought for the rest of existence.
For all the New Age woo that intersected with the urban ayahuasca tribe, they did at least grapple with the darkness of the world and orient themselves towards collectively overcoming it. The notion that we could benefit from getting to grips with the darkness made more sense than ever before.
Shortly before the Psychoactive Substances Act came into law, an acquaintance who had acquired some 1-P LSD, a safe and then-legal acid analogue, came to stay for the weekend. I had been proselytising on the benefits of psychedelic revelations to friends I suspected might be receptive, offering my services as trip sitter. I felt like I was ready to do my bit for the spread of love and revelation.
I laid a fire and made tea. I had tidied the house and cooked a variety of locally-sourced vegan snacks, mindful of the sensitivity to the energetic qualities of food that often arises in these situations. I had bought a notebook. I had high expectations. He was a good candidate for the full Leary experience: time done in Buddhist monasteries, transpersonal psychotherapy training, Jung enthusiast.
He sat by the fire, insisting that nothing was happening. I sat patiently. It was important not to ask leading questions.
Eventually he looked up. ‘I really fancy a steak.’
I asked him if he thought he would feel safe if I went to the butcher. He erupted into laughter. I jumped into the car. I observed the butcher carrying a quarter of a dead cow over his shoulder and wondered if he was doing OK back there. Having offered to be present, it would be a terrible thing if he found himself isolated at a moment of extreme vulnerability, perhaps teetering at the edge of an existential void. As the butcher excised a large piece of sirloin out of the cow I speculated upon the revelatory experiences my friend might be having at this moment in time. Fear could be productive too; it was important to trust that he had the skills within him to turn it around into one of those life-affirming manifestations of the power of love. I paid for the steak and went home.
He was grinning from ear to ear. I asked him why. He laughed and said, ‘Gnomes.’
I asked him if he still wanted the steak. He nodded assent and announced that he would eat it with his hands.
I made a note of the important developments as they happened:
T+ 60 Requests steak. Gnomes.
T+ 90 Eats steak.
T+150 Reports sexual experience with cartoon chipmunk whose head explodes. Still gnomes. More coherent now.
I asked him about the chipmunk in a manner that I hoped was not leading while nonetheless fishing for deep psychosexual discoveries. The detail provided was unprintable.
I wanted to ask him moral questions about the implications of the chipmunk’s exploding head. He demurred. There was a silence.
Eventually, he laughed, and when he stopped laughing he was quite insistent that we should go into the garden. I would argue that it was an important cosmic lesson in the power of chaos over authority or something like that, but everyone knows that taking too much acid leads to a love of teleological arguments, and that felt best avoided.
Nina Lyon is a writer and lives in the Welsh borders. She is the author of Mushroom Season (Vintage, 2014; runner-up FT/Bodley Head Essay Prize 2013) and Uprooted (Faber, 2016; Roger Deakin Award 2015). She also writes academic stuff about Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, sense and nonsense, and late-Victorian metaphysics. More info at http://www.ninalyon.com and @ninalyon.