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Psychoactive Sacramentals: Essays on Entheogens and Religion

(San Francisco: Council on Spritual Practices, 2001)

Edited by Thomas B. Roberts

<Reviewed by Nowick Gray>

Psychoactive Sacramentals is a profound and important book. Though it describes practices and substances which have been instrumental in human evolution over tens or hundreds of millennia, the subject--wise use of consciousness-expanding plants and their chemical analogues--has never been more timely. A 1995 conference hosted by the Chicago Theological Seminary featured an impressive range of top academics, researchers, and practicing therapists, who in this collection compiled by Thomas Roberts present their contributions, rich with experienced insights and core challenges.

"Entheogens" (meaning "god within," or "god- or spirit-facilitating") in this work replaces the jaded term "psychedelics," in referring to substances taken for sacramental purposes--for primary religious or spiritual experience. Immediately as we enter this book, we know that we are far from the world of pop culture and 60s nostalgia, and rather brought closer into contact with an age-old shamanic tradition that has continued, more or less underground, to the present day.

Part of the "underground" nature of psychoactive sacramentals is the esoteric nature of spirituality itself. Personal revelation is individual and subjective, and cannot always be translated into, or found through the practice of, the public forms of conventional religious doctrine and ritual. A cloak of mystery has traditionally surrounded the ritual use of mind-altering plants, and for good reason: to uphold respect for the sacred intent of their use for personal and spiritual growth.

Another, less justifiable reason for the covert use of mind-expanding substances is their arbitrary prohibition by the legal structures of modern societies. While ample research supports the controlled use of such "spirit-medicines" in supportive settings (such as the Native American Church provides legally in the case of peyote), there are few exceptions to the indiscriminate lumping of all such sacraments with harmful and addictive drugs.

As Stephen Jay Gould is quoted,

"Our current drug crisis is a tragedy born of a phony system of classification. For reasons that are little more than accidents of history, we have divided a group of nonfood substances into two categories: items purchasable for supposed pleasure (such as alcohol), and illicit drugs...I could abide--though I would still oppose--our current intransigence if we applied the principle of total interdiction to all harmful drugs. But how can we possibly defend our current policy based on a dichotomy that encourages us to view one class of substances as a preeminent scourge while the two most dangerous and life-destroying substances by far, alcohol and tobacco, form a second class advertised in neon on every street corner in America?"

Ironically, research has shown the use of entheogens to be of significant value in treatment of addiction to other drugs. (See for example the work of Ken Tupper, especially the link below.*)

It's not much of a stretch, in my view, to intuit that the motivation of governments in prohibiting entheogens is political: the power-holders see a more conscious populace is a threat. Better to allow people substances which are proven to be harmful and addictive, but which allow them to work harder materially (coffee, sugar, tobacco) and then, at the end of the working day or week, to relax into the pleasant dullness of spiritual and political apathy (alcohol, barbiturates, antidepressants). In this way The Economy still reigns as the ruling god of the culture, with addicts its sacrificial victims.

While the essays in Psychoactive Sacramentals stop short of such an outright claim that the political agenda is the operating principle in the case of governments vs. entheogens, one essay in the book makes the point strongly if indirectly, in reference to that branch of contemporary Christianity known as liberation theology. Rev. George Cairns finds common ground between Gospel-based prayer and the sacramental use of entheogens: through both practices we can experience the understanding of our divine connection with each other and all Creation. Further, we come to realize that seeking the liberation of all beings is our sacred responsibility. In the established churches (as well as in the halls of government), however, "structures of dominance are not amused when we recover these...profoundly subversive understandings."

Another speaker at the conference, Ann Shulgin, probes deeper into the psyche for insight into the current legal impasse. Discounting mere ignorance, she shares her opinion based on psychotherapeutic practice with MDMA ("Ecstasy"): "I blame something else: an intense unconscious fear of the hidden depths of the human psyche, and an unacknowledged certainty that the Shadow is, indeed, the final terrible, rockbottom truth about the nature of man. This belief, in most of us, has been nurtured in a thousand ways by family and culture, and too often by institutionalized religion." Shulgin knows from experience that with the necessary chemical aids and careful support, the Shadow side of ourselves can be met and eventually befriended as a necessary ally. But while fear writes the laws, such practices are legally unavailable.

Spiritual training of any kind, including practice with the use of entheogens, is not for everyone. And it's not about merely "getting high" with a glimpse of momentary bliss. Collectively the essays in this book paint a careful picture of past research, present insight, and scenarios for wise future use of sacramental substances. Clearly there is much positive work that can be done, while honing our understanding of what works best and for whom, and what circumstances are best avoided. There is a strong case made here, in fact, that human evolution in the past--and in the future--may depend on the rapid opening of consciousness that the entheogens offer us, as individuals and as a species.

The stakes, indeed, are sky-high. As another writer, Dr. Roger Walsh, observes, "The global problems we are facing--pollution, starvation, ecological degradation, overpopulation--are in each and every case a product of human behavior. The state of the world now reflects the state of our minds. What we call our global 'problems' are actually 'symptoms' of our individual and collective mind states."

Which brings us back to our present limitations, our material preoccupations and our fears of our own inner nature...perhaps even of our own potential to grow. Shulgin comes back to her point about our need to look past our own denial, to walk past our psychic comfort zone, with the aid of helpers who have been there. "It seems to me," she counsels, "that if the human species is to survive much longer on earth, this kind of spiritual journey, this kind of understanding and transformation of the dark side of the soul, will have to be seen as a necessary part of that human survival."

Entheogens, as the authors of these essays make clear, allow us to walk farther and faster in the territory of the soul, than we might otherwise be able to do. In that territory we are invited to discover both darkness and light, and the cosmic unity they compose. Carrying such a full experience within us, we are further invited to guide others along the path, in support of our connection together and with the rest of the natural community.

Subversive? No doubt.

Back at the ranch, there's always TV, with three Religion Channels.


Order this book online from Amazon.com

* See especially K. W. Tupper, (2009), Entheogenic healing: The spiritual effects and therapeutic potential of ceremonial ayahuasca use, in J. H. Ellens (Ed.), The healing power of spirituality: How faith helps humans thrive (Vol. 3, pp. 269-282). Westport, CT: Praeger. Retrieved here (PDF file).

Online Reference Resource on Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments

The darker side of the international "war on drugs"...


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