Psychoactive Sacramentals: Essays on Entheogens and Religion
(San Francisco: Council
on Spritual Practices, 2001)
Edited by Thomas
<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
"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?"
It's not much of a stretch, in my view, to intuit that the motivation
of these governments 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.
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
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
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
Reference Resource on Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments
darker side of the international "war on drugs"...