The rising popularity of indigenous plant medicines was, perhaps, one of the less expected phenomena of the late industrial era. From ayahuasca to iboga to kambo – the frog toxin that induces copious vomiting and concomitant spiritual development – ancient shamanic medicines marrying physical discomfort with transcendent revelation became fashionable in the developed world. It was often felt by enthusiasts of these methods that progress carried a malaise, or even was one, and that the grittier medicinal offerings and cosmographies of indigenous cultures were uniquely able to address it.
Each plant medicine had its own attributes, each with its own mindset and ideology. Ayahuasca was a way for Mother Vine to impart her wisdom regarding the interconnectedness of all living things; the syncretic Bwiti belief system that shaped the traditional use of iboga brought stability and grounding by connecting to ancestry and the past.
One of the lesser-known indigenous plant medicines of the millennial era failed to grow to prominence until later, as the last vestiges of millennial psychedelic utopianism seemed to fade. Indigenously, among the Osni of the Lost Estuary, it was known as the goxetecatxi, or the Deepening. The Deepening was more than a plant medicine. Its permanence attests to that; while ayahuasca or psychoactive toad enthusiasts would insist on a sudden and profound alteration to their psyche, in time the various neuroses of post-industrial existence would settle back in again.
The Deepening went further, and was better described, most would agree, as an altered awareness practice. Just as the advanced meditations of the Eastern religions were intended to free the practitioner from the shackles of the mind, so too did the Deepening, but via its own very different method.
The Deepening takes you to your centre, deep within the abdominal energy node. This is not to say that Osni operate within the traditional Vedic/Hindu chakra system: it is important not to bring in those assumptions, for Osni cosmography could not be more different in its radical simplicity. In general, all bets for how plant medicines, social rituals and so on tend to work are off so far as the Osni were concerned. They had no interest in mechanisms, and indeed no words to communicate them.
In general, all bets for how plant medicines, social rituals and so on tend to work are off so far as the Osni were concerned. They had no interest in mechanisms, and indeed no words to communicate them.
If you take your hands, relax your abdominal muscles and press down into your lower belly, the Middle is somewhere in there. This is an ongoing practice aimed at opening up the gut to the Deepening. The Osni would mime a “mining” of it, with a bent arm, raised fist gently twisting and a grimace. We read a smuttiness into this, incorrectly; in Osni culture, assisting in the entry to the Deepening by means of nodal massage was a purely religious exercise and one carried out between parents and children and other family members as well as social acquaintances. It was an important bonding ritual and used in much the same way that we might conduct casual conversation or propose a toast at group social gatherings.
In many indigenous cultures, plant medicines form part of a coming-of-age ceremony for young men; the Osni would conduct the Deepening at any point in their life that they felt to be the correct time for it. Some children were Deepened. Some elderly people did so only on their deathbed.
It was considered inauspicious to die without having Deepened; it also eroded social standing in the Osni village to reach adulthood without having done so, but this was countered by a belief among those who had not yet done so that to Deepen before the correct time saw your consciousness lost forever into the murk. There was a complex codependency between the earthy wisdoms of the Deepened and the sharper facilitatory faculties of the un-Deepened within the Osni village system.
Only those who had Deepened could know when another person was ready, although they did not know it so much as feel it, and this feeling emerged from a visceral suspicion of things not being well. The time before the Deepening was known as the varxiko or “bad smell” and in this time the village elders would first appear disgruntled and then, later, identify a candidate by grunting at them aggressively; it was quite normal for the Deepened to do this on multiple occasions throughout the day, but when the object of their hostility was common for long enough, an hour or longer, the subservient un-Deepened were bound to capture them and forage ingredients for the brew, which was then administered.
Where the Deepening differs from other plant medicines is in the permanence of the change in awareness it brings. It is an old truism that psychedelics change a part of your perception forever, but the Deepening is something from which there is no retreat. Your commitment to the process has to be absolute. Some writers on psychedelics dispute the Deepening as a psychedelic, pointing out the etymology of psyche–deloun – the revealing of the mind – as a misnomer for a process that ablates the mind in any commonly understood sense in favour of something better described as an unmindedness.
The whole point of the Deepening, as opposed to the classical psychedelic experience, they argue, is that it promotes a permanent move away from thought and higher modes of experience, encouraging pure being. The ego loss and metaphysical connectivity described in trip literature are as far removed from the Deepening phenomenon as they are from ordinary perception.
The Deepening offers complete ego loss, in the sense of any reflexive self-awareness, but no metaphysical connectivity. For a while, the Deepening was considered to be the purest form of pure being, in that it is not possible to retreat from ego loss, but the consensus is now moving towards it as a new class of mental existence classified by an absence of mental activity rather than an overexcitatory surfeit of it.
In my volunteer experiments twenty-five years ago, I brewed it up from its four constituent parts, each of which represents the four elements of the Osni cosmography: grub, mud, water, bush. The plant element of this is critical to the success of the venture, as you might expect. One of several cousins of the false sago tree, whose neurotoxic ground seeds were responsible for the early development of dementia in parts of the Marianas, is the primary ingredient here. The quality of the mud is also important. Neo-Osni movements often concentrated themselves in areas of high industrial effluent, in particular where the silt was rich in aluminium salts. The silt-dwelling grubs capable of surviving those conditions tended to accrue still higher concentrations in their flesh; from this you could surmise that either mud or grub might be dispensible, but the Osni are not renowned for logic. It has been noted before that the high toxin content of such grubs may prevent any further neurotrophic activity, thereby acting as an ongoing maintenance dose to the initial Deepening. The water is simply to wet the potion to a consistency that can be swallowed, although the swallowing process is beset by a reflux response that usually requires external force to get it down.
The first thing you will become aware of as you drink the muddy brew is its taste. It is described as being “exactly like eating shit” by volunteers who had previously worked with the animal medicines of the Jeta-Poxi, whose initiation ritual was just that. Baker and Ward’s seminal paper, ‘Shit-Puking: Goxetecatxi as Externalizing Interiority’ in Journal of Liminal Interiorities, is worth reading for its phenomenological detail of the ritual itself. There is then a sense of travelling through a sort of tubal entity – the Wormhole, as some call it.
We know about the process from the overheard utterances of those in the Deepening process; they tend to experience some distress and remain able to articulate it in the initial onset phase. The image of the volunteer on hands and knees, tongue lolling between evacuations of stomach and bowel, groaning and lowing and occasionally peppering their anticipatory ecstasy with short descriptions of the experience is something that stays with you.
The image of the volunteer on hands and knees, tongue lolling between evacuations of stomach and bowel, groaning and lowing and occasionally peppering their anticipatory ecstasy with short descriptions of the experience is something that stays with you.
The descriptions offered differ from those of the classical psychedelics in that the sensation of flying is absent. You don’t have any of that. It is, instead, usually described as a pushing, a rhythmic series of “earthgrunts” – to translate as far as possible the Osni terminology. Each incremental grunt nudges the consciousness to greater depths.
Unlike other plant medicines, the Deepening does not encourage visions of elves or angels or speculative geometries. There is the interior vision of the great life-pulse, although even that is not a vision as such, but a feeling. As the capacity for language ebbs away and the full purge of bodily fluids and capacities approaches completion, a peaceful grimace resembling that of a baby experiencing a bowel movement occupies the subject’s visage, and, henceforth, all further communication operates in the form of grunts, cries and basic gestures. It has been theorised by psychoanalysts with little credibility that a desire to be reborn as a sort of adult baby, and to return to the deep of the womb by means of retreating to the essence of the gut, is the unconscious motivation behind the ritual.
You’ll notice that the emphasis is on depth rather than elevation – again, elevation is typical in the classical psychedelic trip report, but we don’t find that here. In the Osni culture, elevation is associated with dizziness and incompetence at traditionally privileged tasks such as raking for grubs and cave-digging. To be “elevated” in the Osni tongue is an insult, grounds for excommunication from the village until one is close to one’s deathbed, at which point a forcible Deepening takes place, itself often hastening death. Our knowledge of the indigenous Deepening ritual is based entirely on reports from “elevated” Osni who fled to neighbouring lands.
The “elevated” were often the subject of Osni superstition. They were sometimes scapegoated for inconvenient weather conditions or poorly textured mud by the Deepened majority. Heuxtchi – “bad wind” – was a term used to denote suboptimal weather or environmental surroundings and implies Elevated malfeasance. It is as close as the Osni got to magic in a cosmography devoid of any otherworlds or spirit entities. I should add that it is not supernatural per se, but merely causal. In most systems of thought, the supernatural adds a parallel layer of causality to that experienced in the ordinary world. The Osni did not see cause and effect in the way that we do, so to attribute causality to anything is inherently “bad wind” in character.
Maybe I should elaborate a little here: the Osni had a radically different system of cognition compared to most other cultures, and it was one in which there is no past or future as such. The Osni did not plan, for example; they ate grubs and burrowed caves and copulated but did so as a felt response to the moment. The importance of grubs to the Osni diet was related to this incapacity to plan ahead: a grub, once seen, can be grabbed and swallowed without needing to be skinned, boned or plucked, and, with the exception of discarded bits of Happy Meal in the domain of their neo-Osni followers, is the only thing immediate enough to hand. The Osni saw what was there before them at any given time. They had no chronological framework for putting events in order.
Prior to the Deepening, they were capable of perfunctory planning and the acknowledgement of prior events; any capacities beyond that were acculturated out of public space as “elevated”. The cultural structures and tenets of village life were few, but were rigidly adhered to; deviation from social norms usually resulted in a rapid and forcible Deepening.
The un-Deepened Osni were responsible for what few organizational requirements the village had – preparing for a storm, or communicating urgent information in the event of an intervillage boundary dispute over grubbing in mudflats – and acted as servants and facilitators to the Deepened. This role trod a fine line, for if they behaved in too competent a fashion they were deemed “elevated” and run out of the village or forcibly Deepened before their time, which itself tended to provoke a flight reaction, often successful, since the Deepened, though numerous, were easy to outwit.
Nonetheless, the Deepened Osni were able to acknowledge that things are not good – perhaps the silt-grubs are sparse or it is getting cold – and the “bad wind” is invoked. There have been linguists arguing for “bad wind” or badwind meaning, simply, bad, and associated with the Elevated because they too are bad, or aberrant, which seems convincing.
One of the things we found in studying the Osni was that the Deepening promoted a firm village lineage and attachment to place. The Osni would not describe it in those abstract terms, of course, but would merely grunt while squatting on the ground as an indication of “hereness”. Without the desire to go anywhere or do anything beyond meeting one’s basic physical needs from moment to moment, they tended to stay put. They were, therefore, unusually genetically homogenous. Some Osni had webbed hands and feet, and were considered to be gifted with an inherent Deepness. There is a word, ourxchi, which roughly means “basic”, and this was the highest term of praise available in the Osni tongue.
There is a word, ourxchi, which roughly means “basic”, and this was the highest term of praise available in the Osni tongue.
Ethnographers would comment on the peculiar nature of the anti-Osni sentiment among neighbouring tribes. A degree of rivalry is usually expected, an assertion of one’s superior culture or hunting, for example. Instead, the Feta-Xano and the Danxi would immediately burst into laughter and mimic the “mining” movement with their arms. Interestingly, for their languages and cultures are very different, the rivalry between them is great and there is little intermingling without casualties, both tribes shared the same phrase to describe the Osni, kaxa-osnatexa – literally, “those with their heads up their arse.” In Danxi this term has the additional slang meaning of “man with arse for head/mouth”, thus “arsehole”.
A common proverb in the region tells of a Feta-Xano, Danxi and Osni chieftain who, upon hearing that a terrible storm is coming, each make preparations. The Feta-Xano chieftain instructs all villagers, men, women and children, to hurry to make more arrowheads and take arms against the sky to fight against the storm. The Danxi chieftain drinks a sacred vision-brew, meditates in silence in his hut, and eventually concocts a deadly poison which he blows into the sky to kill it. The Osni chieftain looks blank and sticks his head up his arse.
There is speculation that this proverb might have a degree of factual basis. Caught between two neighbouring warrior tribes, their settlements in the fertile plains pillaged and occupied, pushed out into a perpetual no-man’s land along the muddy estuary, it makes sense that the Osni might have developed their unique neuropharmacology and world-view as a response to the conditions they found themselves in. What use is there in cooking up a vision-brew when there is not very much to see? The causal link espoused by the Danxi – that the Osni were destitute mud-dwellers because they are kaxa-osnatexa – is an inversion of that held by the Feta-Xano, which decribes the Osni as a kaxa-osnatexa tribe forced into passivity by their predicament at the hands of superior Feta-Xano militarism. It is useful to look at outcomes when we examine the rationale for these sorts of cultural practices. We could take that Feta-Xano account and see the goxetecatxi as a mindful way for the Osni to hold the space in which they found themselves, and to identify its limitations instead as desirable assets.
When we look at its recent use in non-indigenous populations, we see a pattern of motivations. People speak of intending to Deepen in order to quell their dissatisfaction with the various complexities foisted upon them by late industrial society. This is a generalization, but one that broadly holds. There was also the second, more pragmatic wave, which we will come to shortly.
Deepening was popular among radical anarchoprimitivists in the 1990s, answering the needs – or so it was perceived – of scaling back human technology and industrial culture in favour of a more sustainable way of being. Silt grubs have few other predators, tasting peculiarly bitter and with a mucosal texture that makes most birds and animals choke; it is quite common for Osni children to choke to death on them soon after weaning.
That leads us to the next advantage, at least in the opinion of the more hardline environmentalist faction of the anarchoprimitivists. The traditional Osni lifestyle was enormously beneficial so far as overpopulation was concerned. While their birth rate is high – the absence of any capacity to think ahead or plan means that Osni sexuality is a scatterfire affair and, while sometimes oriented away from procreation towards grubholes, shrubs and elders, forms a regular pastime in village life – few children survive into adulthood. Few babies, for that matter, survive beyond early childhood, often crushed in the morning stampede to the mudflats once they have detached from their mother’s breast.
Amid a broader wave of recognition of the importance of preserving indigenous cultures, lionizing the Osni lifestyle was an edgier position to take, even among the purist factions of the anarchoprimitivist movement. To do so was to detach oneself entirely from any remaining tatters of liberal humanism and to retreat from industrial society forever. There was, for a time, an academic controversy over whether the neo-Osni communes in, for example, the Thames and Severn estuaries were implicated in a colonial appropriation of authentic Osni culture, but it blew over without any comment from either the Osni themselves or the neo-Osni, neither of whom bore the capacity or inclination to care, and responded to the ethnographers’ queries by immersing their hands deep into the silt, rocking on their haunches and hooting.
It was observed that the neo-Osni, like the Osni, were content if not euphoric in their chosen mode of existence. This accounts in large part for the second-wave Neo-Osni movement of the second and third decades of this century, in which whole communities, facing the catastrophic implications of peak late-industrial society with its erosion of living standards and the growing resentment and hostility it fostered, elected to Deepen as a way of better adapting to the new conditions. The rationale was that attaining an accommodation with the restrictions on lifestyle imposed by severe environmental deterioration and scarcity of resources was desirable, rather than continuing to exist with the knowledge and memory of how much “better” things were before. Deepening would excise comparison. It would construct a new mindset that better fit its environmental conditions. It was like the opposite of the now discredited Stoned Ape Theory.
Some commentators argued that Deepening was a natural if radical continuation of a culture increasingly suspicious of novelty, outsiders, and elevated modes of discourse, and that doing so followed a similarly inverted progress trajectory but without the distress that this otherwise caused. It was, if you looked at it teleologically, a Gaia-style natural fix. The population dropped off substantially within a generation: altered by ever-increasing heavy metal levels in the silt-grubs, the neo-neo-Osni entered a more profound depth of experience that saw them shudder in the old fashion of religious vapours, and with this came a wave of infertility that saw live births fall well below replacement rate.
Some neo-Osni primitivists had claimed the Deepening to be a religious calling, and the experience of the later waves of their tribe fulfilled their assertions. When Federal and European regulations were due to be imposed on the ritual ingestion of neurotoxic substances in the early twenty-first century, there was an outcry: the Deepening was a ceremonial act and the neo-Osni a religious movement. There was the notorious legal challenge regarding whether or not self-destructive practices were permissible as religious freedoms, and whether or not minors were able to consent to practices likely to result in a curtailment of their rights and consciousness. The issues of existing faith schools and circumcision, raised in court, brought the neo-Osni into mainstream public discourse for the first time, and, fearful of causing offence in an already fractious environment, they were granted religious exemption.
What was perhaps more surprising was the rate at which members of the Abrahamic religions, many of whom were initially outraged at their comparison to a movement described as “intentionally backward”, rushed to convert to neo-neo-Osnïsm.
What was perhaps more surprising was the rate at which members of the Abrahamic religions, many of whom were initially outraged at their comparison to a movement described as “intentionally backward”, rushed to convert to neo-neo-Osnïsm. It was thought, although by the time full conversion occurred it was no longer possible to get a full rationale from those involved, that the simplicity of the Osni mindset and the impossibility of straying from the Deepened way of living were key attractors. While the neo-Osni movement was predominantly environmentalist in its motivations, the neo-neo-Osni were an ideologically disparate collective. Former evangelical Christians found their peace alongside Muslims, Jews, the Spiritual-but-not-Religious, lapsed Buddhists and a New Age splinter faction that emerged from a schism over whether or not vibrational frequencies should be raised or lowered in preparation for the End Times.
There can be no doubt that, in some way, the vogue for Deepening saved the planet from the worst ravages of humanity just as it appeared as though we had reached the brink of existence. The decision on the parts of various Western countries to elect Deepened presidents was instrumental in the breakdown of the neoliberal order, for in the absence of coherent leadership the norms of so-called civil industrial society were soon dismantled. The drivers of consumerism were no longer present; law and order existed only in the arms of vigilante gangs, who themselves imposed Deepenings on those accused of infractions; a world that bore more resemblance to the medieval era was reached within decades.
When the Chinese regime used Deepenings as a mode of reeducation for prisoners and corrupt officials, and then in internecine rivalries between different factions of the Party, a similar tipping point was reached; before long, other disgruntled political factions across the world followed. In the parts of the world controlled by radical monotheism, it was not considered to be necessary, with a similar style of living and mindset already in place. Indeed, subsequently uncovered forensics of the bone mineral composition, rectal integrity and brain lesions of militant Islamists indicate that a similar practice might have formed part of their initiation rituals.
The Western proponents of ayahuasca and the psychedelic plant medicines contemporary to the early neo-Osni used to say that plant medicines were the only tool that remained to protect the earth from complete extinction at the hands of humanity. In the end, a better claim can be made for goxetecatxi. In excising any ambition, political interests, and material greed from the vast majority of the human race, the Deepening saved the planet, just as its early advocates hoped.
The Osni, or their spiritual descendants, remain among us, scattered across the planet in pockets of estuarine mudscape uninhabitable by other forms of life. As we choose which elements of the last world orders to rebuild, they serve as a reminder of Nature’s remarkable capacity to self-regulate and heal.
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 www.ninalyon.com.