Psychedelics as metaphor-amplifiers
Plus, psychedelic-usage soars in the US in new survey
This is our weekly Tuesday Brunch round-up of psychedelic and ecstatic articles and links from around the web. First bit is free, then all the links are for paid subscribers only.
In 1978, philosopher Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, exploring the ways humans use metaphor to make sense of illness – cancer as a battle, for example. She wasn’t celebrating this so much as trying to help people become aware of the metaphors they use when ill, so they could liberate themselves from them.
Two years later, in 1980, cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson extended the metaphorical thinking in their book Metaphors We Live By. They suggested metaphors play a central role in shaping all human experience. We can’t help but use metaphors in making sense of our experience – love as a journey, for example (‘we’re just setting out’, ‘we’ve hit a bump in the road’), or ideas as food (‘food for thought’, ‘a lot to digest’).
As some philosophers and psychologists have noticed, metaphors are especially powerful when we come to think about the mind. The history of the philosophy of mind is a history of metaphors – the mind as mirror of God, the mind as container, the mind as blank slate, the mind as machine, the mind as chimp, the mind as computer network, and so on.
You pick your metaphor about the mind and that metaphor shapes your mind and experience of life. Metaphors create worlds. But we can get stuck in a metaphor, and take it over-literally and over-seriously. It solidifies into a prison cell.
How does all this relate to psychedelics? A new paper by Alex Gearin, an Australian medical anthropologist at the University of Hong Kong, considers psychedelic experience as a form of metaphor-amplifier.
The paper is called Moving beyond a figurative psychedelic literacy: Metaphors of psychiatric symptoms in ayahuasca narratives, and was just published in Social Science & Medicine.
Gearin interviewed 43 participants at an ayahuasca retreat centre in Peru. He noticed how they used metaphor to make sense of their psychedelic experience, or rather, they were immersed in metaphors during the ayahuasca journey: metaphors of cleansing, journeying, connecting, awakening, illuminating, transforming and so on.
He also noted that the metaphors people were immersed in were often connected to their intentions and illness situations. Participants with depression expressed metaphors of feeling isolated and then reconnected, for example. Participants with PTSD used metaphors of uncovering, confronting enemies, making peace with demons.
Moving beyond the literal-figurative divide [the article] explores the intrinsic “metaphoricity” of psychedelic experiences and advocates for a literacy of conceptual metaphors regarding both clinical and non-clinical psychedelic narratives.
This is close to what we are seeking – better ‘ecstatic literacy’ in how westerners relate to ecstatic / revelatory experience, so that people can learn to read revelatory experiences like texts, and realize they are ambiguous and can be interpreted on multiple levels. The literal level of interpretation is the most basic, and if you’re stuck at that level you’re as misguided as someone who wakes up every morning believing their dreams are literally true.
Mysticism and Metaphor
Alex is onto a rich seam with his analysis of metaphor in altered states. Back in 2015, I wrote an essay called ‘Mysticism as Metaphor’, in which I explored how Medieval Christian mystics used metaphors to guide people on inner journeys.
Metaphors and similes are crucial to mystical literature. Think of Jesus’ teachings - the kingdom of heaven is like a banquet, like a mustard seed, like a vineyard, like treasure buried in a field; the Son of God is like a lamb, like a shepherd, like a gardener. Jesus suggests that the best way to describe mystical experience, inspire it in others, and then make sense of it and integrate it into your life, is through poetic language and symbol.
It’s similar in other mystical traditions - in the ecstatic poetry of the Sufi mystic Rumi for example. The soul is like a tavern, like a bridal chamber, like a beggar who has forgotten their inheritance, like a bird migrating home…
Christian mystical texts are, in essence, extended metaphors – the soul is an ark, the soul is an inner castle, the soul is a mirror and so on. The trainee mystic would read and meditate on a mystical text, until the extended metaphor became part of their inner landscape, an inner mind-palace stored with wisdom and virtues, and then that inner world becomes their reality and (hopefully) they encounter God in that reality.
In other words, the role of metaphor is fundamental to mysticism and altered states - they describe them, inspire them, shape them and help integrate them. As Cecile Xie wrote in a paper on metaphors in mysticism published this year:
In mystical texts, metaphors create a narrative space-time where spiritual experience becomes an adventure, a journey (climbing in the dark, exploring a castle, entering the state of marriage, etc.). Metaphors allow the mystic to determine the journey’s starting point and its various stages until the accomplishment of one’s spiritual development. Organized around a suitable metaphor, the cognitive process unfolds along with the transformation of the pilgrim.
In essence, metaphors are a free and instant form of virtual reality, which we use for all kinds of purposes (not just mystical). But sometimes people get lost in these virtual worlds and take their metaphors too literally – Don Quixote Syndrome, you could cal it.
The mystics rarely took their metaphors too literally. They understood their metaphors were just ways of putting it. Modern scientists by contrast take their mind-metaphors completely literally – the mind isn’t like a machine, it is a machine. This leads to all kinds of errors.
We see similar literalness in psychedelic science. What do psychedelics ‘do’? They turn off the Default Mode Network, it’s like resetting the mind, it’s like 10,000 hours of therapy in a night. And so on. Our metaphors of healing are taken literally, escape out into the world, and cause mischief.
Alex is right that we need to think more about the imagination, metaphor, ambiguity and ecstatic literacy in psychedelics. That requires a better conversation between the psychedelic sciences and the humanities.
In contrast to previous eras of psychedelic research, the psychedelic renaissance of the last 15 years has been almost entirely dominated by psychiatrists and neuroscientists, and it really shows in the field’s literalness and lack of creativity and imagination. There are hardly any papers on the role of imagination in the psychedelic experience – which is extraordinary when you think about it – and very few on the language, symbols, myths , music and metaphors we use during and after psychedelic experiences.
Psychedelics amplify our natural metaphor-creating power and immerse us in metaphorical worlds, which can help us make sense of our experience and move from dis-ease to flourishing. However, we can take these metaphors over-seriously and get stuck in them, so it is useful to develop metaphorical and poetic literacy as part of a broader ecstatic literacy. We need to learn slow and careful reading of our experiences. No small task.
Check out Alex’s several academic articles on ayahuasca here.
After the paywall: psychedelic usage quadruples among Americans in the last decade, while psychedelic-related emergency room admissions went up by 69% in five years in California.