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Beyond Recreation: Psychedelics, Ritual & Time

A talk by Dave Lee presented at the Head Over Heels event at Green Angels, Borough, London, 5 June 2004

The psychedelic experience challenges us to make better use of its incredible potentials for healing, ecstasy and transformation. Using the techniques of breathwork, energy work, chanting, meditation and magic, how do we create psychedelic rituals for the 21st century?

In this talk I’m going to review some of the ideas and techniques that have accompanied my work with psychedelic sacraments over the last 30 or so years, and draw a few lessons for future practice.

What the title means: Have you ever taken a psychedelic and been struck by a sense of awe at the vast ocean of time that just opens up? Time no longer has a single dimension, once we go beyond the consumerist approach to psychedelics; once we go beyond the idea of entertainment and recreation, how do we fill this time?

People may use psychedelics for fun, but in most cases not many times. This is the point to make some distinctions about what drugs we are talking about: Some drugs, like alcohol, opiates, cocaine, speed and so forth provide relatively reliable access to particular emotions, and thereby assist in the repression of symptoms of chronic distress. The most stupid words ever penned about a drug may be from the old rock song: ‘She don’t lie, She don’t lie, She don’t lie, Cocaine…‘ . This is utter bullshit. Cocaine is the archetype of the mood-drug, completely unchallenging.

My song lyrics would be:

Drugs of mood always delude
Drugs of madness transform your sadness.

Psychedelics do not work purely through emotions; they also change sensory perception and ideation and challenge identity profoundly. They often give a rough ride, tearing open emotional depths that may make the psychonaut feel that he is drowning in his own past, or overwhelmed by some external spirit or mental force. They offer fearful, wondrous perspectives; they are more drugs of chaos than drugs of mood. As such, they open up possibilities of profound healing and transformation. They also have less potential to be addictive, because they do not provide a reliable route of escape from pain.

MDMA is considered by some as a psychedelic; I would say it is not, if any meaning is to remain in that term. The drug has the remarkable properties of allowing the deepest and potentially most disturbing insights about one’s behaviour and feelings to surface without any sense of threat, and of facilitating empathy. These features speed up the process of emotional healing during psychotherapy by an enormous factor, and earn MDMA the new title of empathogen. In recreational use, whilst the first few experiences of MDMA are likely to imprint the user with a new sense of freedom to explore feelings and come out of his shell, further regular use tends to degrade the effects into the mere mood-drug level. Ultimately, with MDMA as with any mood-drug use, the pattern of use becomes a habit, a mere consumerism, just as with booze, junk, cocaine or speed. Habitual E-consumers these days tend to refer to ‘pills’, demonstrating a rather cynical attitude not only to the purity but even the identity of the drugs they are on.

Psychedelics, on the other hand, are not mood drugs, and therefore by their nature are not generally as habit-forming. LSD and psilocybin can be used recreationally, but at some stage the tripper will find himself plunged into his deep inner worlds, and this doesn’t usually work well on the dancefloor.

One thing that everyone who has thought about psychedelic experience must have come across is the idea of Set and Setting. Setting is just the environment, the place. Set is expectations.

In ritual work, Setting is the Temple or Lodge or sacred grove – wherever you work. Set is controlled by Intention, both stated and meditated upon, and symbolized by the furnishings, objects and actions of the ritual.

These are the sets and mental frameworks I have identified myself as having used with psychedelics, in the order I discovered them. There are 8 of these, and I’ve numbered them 0 – 8, because the first one is entertainment, and is not useful as a model for later work, because it is essentially a naïve viewpoint, and therefore inaccessible to experienced psychonauts:-

0. No worries

Goal: not explicit. No intention except expansion of experience and fun.

Go out walking, go to concerts or parties. If any evolution actually happens at this stage, it is because it sneaks up on you from behind and rips your naïve assumptions into pieces.

1. Formless exploration, ‘wipeout trips’

Goal: Not explicit. In my case, it amounted to an attempt to recover or attain the ground of being, the completely open, relaxed Self, by dint of doing absolutely nothing – which amounted to lying around listening to music.

In this model, one has faith in the ability of psychedelics to change one’s life, maybe illuminate one. This was a big chunk of the mindset of the 60s psychedelic revolution. This is psychedelic punk mysticism, freakdom. Its influences include Leary, but more so Ken Kesey, in retrospect.

In the late 60s I found that there was virtually no care or concern for each other in such tripping groups (I hesitate the use the word ‘communities’). There was a strong element of macho hippy stuff, drawing on phrases from Kesey like ‘Never trust a Prankster’. The message is: sort your own stuff out or fall by the wayside.

2. Sex

Goal: Ecstasy; bonding; totally positive emotional state; boundary dissolution, exchange or merging of subjectivity.

Obviously, not a set which is easily adapted for group work.

3. Ritual magick using low dosages combined with other techniques

Goals: group mind entity formation (Chaos group, 1984-87); Oracle; Deep spiritual healing; Physical healing; Self-empowerment

The intentions here are convergent: there is a definite, explicit goal for each ritual.

[At this point Dave passed around a handout on the Structure of Ritual.]

A notable series of rituals that were incredibly successful were based around the club scene; a friend and magical co-worker, fed up with losing his friends to AIDS, arranged the series as part of an assault on the HIV virus and the AIDS syndrome. With the club owner’s permission we would arrive at the club before the start of the main evening’s festivities, create it as a sacred space with our initial ritual – using for instance a sigil in flour on the floor, then withdraw to change into ordinary clubbing gear for a few hours. At the end of the night, we would reappear briefly on the dance floor in robes again. We were using the energies of psychedelics, dance and music, channeling some of the ecstasy of the rave into magickal effect. The results were truly impressive, including major remissions in individuals known to the team and an overall shift in how people viewed AIDS: no longer is it necessarily a death sentence, and I believe our work contributed to that shift of perception.

In further ritual workings with and without psychedelics my co-workers and I have increasingly made use of what I shall call the group-energy effect. In its simplest form, this is the witches’ Cone of Power, a spinning vortex of creative energy used to empower spells. It is also visible – literally, sometimes – in group breathwork sessions. When I’ve taught breathwork here in this space on a few occasions people have opened their eyes and reported seeing auras and energy flows around the circle.

This effect is exploited in George Pennington’s Breath of Light to do healing. In my groups we have sought to structure it more. We have generated flows into the centre of a circle to heal a particular person, around the circle to pass the energy through everyone, in lines that intersect, in pairs that then flow together to a common focus, amongst other arrangements. I thought we were the only people doing this until I saw a painting by Pablo Ameringo, the Peruvian visionary artist, in which four people are drinking ayahuasca in a circle. Two of them are men, two are women, two face into the centre, two outwards. Around them is a torus, a doughnut shaped structure, made of fine filigrees of light such as are typical of DMT hallucinations. In the centre of the circle are descending a group of incredible quasi-human entities, as if the vortex is drawing them in from cosmic space. I had seen something almost identical to this vision 3 years before when working with an experimental ritual group. I have since learned that some groups within the Santo Daime church employ geometrical arrangements of human energies for directed healing, and I shall mention this again later.

4. Psychogeography, dérive, drift

Goal: semi-explicit: losing one’s boundaries in a natural setting; landscape mysticism.

Culminating in Avebury pilgrimage, 1995. Not a suitable model for groups other than very small and close ones in relatively ‘safe’ places.

5. Breathwork sessions, in the style of Stanislav Grof

Goals: emotional healing and transpersonal ecstasy.

With close friend, 1998-2000. See handout.

[At this point Dave passed around a handout on Stan Grof’s Methodology.]

6. Daime church

Goal: self-healing; celebration of higher consciousness; within a religious frame, involving:- strengthening of church egregore and its belief-memes for its particular purposes

7. Present experimental phase – solitary or with single partner

Goals: Healing and Higher consciousness: the experience of states that are not afflicted by death.

The framework is a synthesis of shamanic, western alternative healing and western magick, perhaps converging towards the concept of the mystery school.

The techniques include:

Where can we go with ritual from here?

Goals: Healing, both emotional and physical; A spiritual group experience not contained within a specific religious current; Higher consciousness: the experience of states that are not afflicted by death. (Progress to Nature Mysticism, Deity Mysticism and Formless mysticism)
And how are we going to achieve these goals, knowing what we know now?

Firstly, I think we need two types of Groups. Initially, with the primary group, we work in a most general way. Our objectives are just as above – higher consciousness and healing, the group experience of unmediated spiritual reality. It is obvious to me that such a group operates by invitation only; it is an enormous responsibility for everyone involved, and each group needs to be sure that the people involved are capable of following some basic ground rules for the sake of all participants.

The second type of group already exists, from time to time, evolving at present out of experimental magickal groups. It could also evolve out of the primary psychedelic group. Either way, it consists entirely of experienced psychonauts. This group would have as its goals more intensely focused healing work, using the Group Energy effect. It would use some of the techniques I’m about to outline for the primary group, plus others which work directly on the energy body, the chi or önd, such as:

To come back to the primary group, what ritual elements do we need?

0. Maybe some preparatory work: like ayahuasca dieting, fasting, daily meditation, sexual abstinence where appropriate.

Sequence on the day:

  1. Preliminary discussion and negotiation if it is a group session. Decide on theme, if any, and ground rules. Can use Mind-Mapping to stimulate creative thinking.
  2. Prepare sacred space: Can use a banishing ritual if desired. May acknowledge the ancestors, healing spirits, spirits of place – maybe by some object that represents them
  3. May state Intentions out loud, but not necessarily so. This may be interwoven with:
  4. Initial purification of participants, for instance smudging / censing
  5. The exaltation stage: No mundane conversation. Singing / chanting. Breathwork. Silent meditation. Prayer. Healing work.
  6. Release and grounding: at the end: all participants, especially the more experienced, check that everyone is OK before breaking up the group / circle for the night. Food and drink is a very good idea.

To get into a bit more detail about the techniques mentioned above:

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