'What were your five most significant orgasms?'
On the theology of Wowism.
This is our weekly light-hearted round-up of psychedelic and ecstatic news, with this week’s links after the paywall.
Have you noticed how 95% of psychedelic TV news segments have the same format?
They begin with footage of hippies at Woodstock with some psychedelic rock playing in the background, with a voice-over saying something like ‘psychedelics helped turn on the flower power generation in the Sixties’.
Cut to black and white footage of Nixon. ‘But then Nixon declared the War on Drugs, and research completely ceased for decades’.
Cut to modern laboratory filled with boffins: ‘Now there’s a new approach, as scientists at top universities discover the incredible therapeutic benefits of these substances’.
Cut to David Nutt / Robin Carhart-Harris / Roland Griffiths: ‘The results we’ve seen have been truly remarkable’.
Cut to trial participant, tears streaming down their face: ‘It’s amazing!’
And that’s a wrap.
Same story over and over and over. And you notice certain tropes in it.
One is that the contemporary psychedelic renaissance cannibalizes the aesthetics of the psychedelic movement of the late 1960s, drawing on its Dionysian energy, while at the same time carefully distancing itself from its unruly spirit.
The energy, colour and music of these news segments always comes from the Sixties flashback, and the scenes of hippies cavorting in Woodstock. And then it’s cut to a sterilized laboratory and David Nutt in his short-sleeved shirt.
The ‘psychedelic renaissance’ doesn’t have its own aesthetic, in short, because it doesn’t have any artists playing a leading role in it. It’s so medicalized, so sanitized, that the best journalists can do to make the story exciting is drag up some archive footage of Jefferson Airplane.
The second thing that strikes one about psychedelic TV news segments is the ‘blame it on Nixon’ trope. This is repeated so often, without any sort of historical criticism, it’s become like a catechism. ‘It’s all Nixon’s fault’ – he started the War on Drugs, because LSD was threatening the Vietnam War, and because he was a racist. If it wasn’t for Nixon, we’d be living in a psychedelic wonderland by now.
Nope! Not true. Not historically accurate. Read Matthew Oram’s book The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy, which I reviewed in the very first post of this newsletter, roughly a year ago. Psychedelic therapy didn’t fail to take off in the 1960s and 70s because of Nixon. It failed because: (a) researchers like Sidney Cohen became worried about psychedelic harms and abuses in the mid-1960s (b) the drug companies started to restrict supply in the later 1960s partly because of concerns about black market supplies and teenage usage and (c) researchers failed to meet FDA requirements to prove its efficacy. Only after all that had radically reduced researchers’ interest in psychedelics did Nixon reschedule them as Class 1 drugs.
It wasn’t that psychedelics were useless, but their efficacy seemed to depend on all sorts of extra-chemical factors, like the enthusiasm of the therapists and the expectations of the patients, and these factors did not always replicate in trials run by less enthusiastic researchers. That’s what did for psychedelic therapy in the Sixties. But that’s an inconvenient historical fact for psychedelics research today, where so far not a single psychedelic trial result has been replicated by researchers not emotionally invested in psychedelics. So instead…blame Nixon. Poor Dick, 50 years after he left office declaring ‘you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore’, they’re still kicking him!
The deification of Experience
A third, and final, assumption one finds in most psychedelic reporting, and in the psychedelic renaissance in general, is what I call Wowism. What I mean by this is an attitude or life philosophy that what really matters is life is Big Wow Moments.
The psychedelic renaissance is typically considered to have begun in 2006 with the publication of Roland Griffiths, Bill Richards and Bob Jesse’s 2006 paper, ‘Psilocybin can occasion mystical-like experiences’.
The key takeaway of that paper and the 2008 follow-up was that if you gave people magic mushrooms, they would say it was one of the top five most spiritually meaningful experiences of their life. Wow!
But think about the theological assumptions built in to that paper. It’s assuming that spirituality is about meaningful moments, big experiences, epiphanies, peaks, wows.
You see the assumption in much psychedelic reporting. Tell us about your experience. How would you rate it? Top five? Better than holding your new-born baby?
Imagine asking a Shipibo Indian shaman, ‘what would you say were your top five most spiritually significant experiences?’ It wouldn’t make sense to them.
Imagine asking Jesus. ‘Today, life coach and wellness entrepreneur Jesus joins the podcast to talk about his new crypto-currency, X-Templis, and to share his top five most spiritually significant moments.’
‘Thanks for having me. Well, I think it would have to be…
5) Lazarus coming back from the dead. That was huge.
4) Last Supper. Delicious.
3) My baptism by John. What a guy. Incredible healer.
2) The Transfiguration. Just incredible. Wow.
1) Being born again. Massive moment.
The point is, a Christian life certainly has its epiphanies, but these moments only make sense as part of a personal and collective narrative of humans’ journey to God. Otherwise, they’d just be baubles of experience floating in the air without any tree to hang them on.
We live today amid the ruins of Romanticism, which took the intense ecstatic experiences found in Christianity or other religions, and turned them into a religion of pure experience, without shared dogma, without shared rituals, without shared community.
Just you and your experience of the Divine. Except even the Divine became questionable. So it was just you and your Experience.
That’s what Emerson developed in the 19th century – I am become an Eyeball in the forest, not even a body any more, just a massive eye. William James codified this way of thinking in his classic of scientific spirituality, The Varieties of Religious Experience, the sacred text that laid the groundwork for the psychedelic renaissance 100 years later.
Before Romanticism, the value and the goal of mystical experiences was the deepening of one’s marriage to God, not the Big Wow of the wedding night. But after Romanticism, the experience became the end, the goal, even the God.
This is what wellness / New Age culture can sometimes be – the deification of Experience, above everything else – family, nation, planet, God. Just you on your own having your Big Wow Moment.
Capitalism, of course, has very much contributed to this deification of Experience, thanks to the experience economy. As James Wallman tells us, people don’t want to spend money on things now (especially as some things, like houses, are too expensive). They spend their money on experiences.
Just today, I see that wellness influencer Jonny Miller has launched a ‘Spiritual MBA’. He tells us
I’ve spent over $70k+ over the past few years experimenting with dozens of modalities, trainings, vision-quests, retreats etc (shortlist of top ten here)
I contributed to this way of thinking myself, with my second book, The Art of Losing Control – A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience.
Bad title! But if I’d called it A Philosopher’s Search for God, even fewer people would have bought it.
Today, then, everything has been stripped away and reduced to Experiences.
Capitalism is all about the Experience. Nature is all about the Experience. Politics is all about the Experience. Spirituality is all about the Experience. Love is all about the Experience.
You make love to your wife, roll over, and there’s Roland Griffiths with his clipboard. ‘Would you rate that orgasm as one of your top five?’
The question doesn’t make sense. Love and life are about the quiet times as much as the Big Wow moments, the growing together slowly over the years.
It’s not about the occasional firework. It’s about building a steady fire that warms your life for years.
After the pay-wall, this week’s interesting links on psychedelic and ecstatic integration, including a new study about people who got worse in psychedelic trials, and the anti-drug copper who smoked dope every day.
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