The Phenomenology of Psychedelics
Psychedelics and phenomenology are at the core of consciousness studies, consciousness itself being psychedelic in nature; the drug that other drugs use as a template to make consciousness more recognizable to itself. The word psychedelic derived from the Greek, psychē ψυχή + dēloun δηλοῦν, literally meaning, ‘mind-manifesting’.
Experiencers often report a feeling more real than real, especially with the DMT entheogen, while other psychedelics induce a different kind of experience. Instead of more real, the experience makes all states seem comparatively unreal or surreal, as Joyce James—not James Joyce, I thought so too at first—(The Psychedelic Review 1964:459) and Henri Michaux (Miserable Miracle 1956) have said of Mescaline.
The experiences of both of these people were not what they expected them to be. The closest they might have come would have been marijuana or absinthe. They, as many experiencers before and since were It would be safe to say that the experiences of both these people were not what they expected them to be. The closest they might have come would have been marijuana or absinthe (Michaux taking his first ‘trip’ when he was in his fifties). They, as many experiencers before and after, were taken apart and (gradually) put back together, either over a period of hours, days or weeks, but however long it took, they did return, albeit a little different.
What these substances seem to show us is that the state we are always in without them is a drug as well, but one we are so accustomed to that we never even notice we are on. Psychedelics are just one of the many, almost infinite experiences that can be termed, unusual or strange. Unusual events merely highlight and wake up this faculty of consciousness in an observer who is not at that moment particularly conscious. Nothing is happening, they are in a receptive state, and then something happens. Something that may well be completely normal to something else, while we, in our mundane temporal state, just going about our lives, consider it to be ‘out of the ordinary’, but who is to say that this sense of complacent ordinary, actually is ordinary. Or what we consider strange is actually strange.
We may not know as much about ‘ordinary’ and ‘strange’ as we think we do and these phenomena exist to tell us as much; that we have a much larger capacity for experience than we know. Which is why we remember these events and consider them to be so profound, because they are more real than the lives we lead—or at least, closer to our true, psychological selves in universal mind; the thought that contains all thoughts, as much mine as it is yours. We all share the same mind, or overmind, which is the cause, or ontological primitive, of everything we see, think and feel.
A book of the late Henri Michaux’s poems ‘Dreams Like Enigmatic Paintings’, translated from the French by Michael Eales, has been immortalized on Lulu since 2013, unbeknownst to most readers, including myself. I did however read a review of the book by Victoria Best, quoting from one of the poems, ‘Nothing but the banal can support the unusual,’ and, ‘The extraordinary has not succeeded in overcoming the ordinary. The ordinary has not been defeated by the absurd.’ Even though I could not find the particular poem from which these lines were taken, this is all we need in order to get a feel for Michaux’s surrealist approach to psychedelics and psychedelic art. That the strange relies on the ordinary, more than the ordinary relies on the strange. It is a mundane world after all; but the mundane is not what it seems.
This is perhaps the most profound part of a psychedelic trip; when it wears off. It’s the presence in absence. We only see what we have from a distance, when it is gone.
One surprising outcome of the new psychedelic renaissance is the practice of not getting high. I’m not just referring to ‘microdosing’, but the ‘trend’ of sober-curious, which sometimes happens as the propitious result of a transpersonal psychedelic trip, wherein the experiencer undergoes a full cycle of life in a day, remembering the details of their birth, whereupon they are born again into a broader, more expansive, integrated life. Confronting their shadow which releases them from the desire (need) to get high.
Zoomers have become notorious for their abstinence from nearly everything, both good and bad. Part of the good is that they do fewer drugs than their predecessors, which just so happens to be part of the emerging trend of ‘sober-curious’.
I hesitate to refer to anything as a trend, since this might imply that it is not a serious choice, (perhaps what it ought to be called is sober-serious). Being sober and getting the most out of our experiences is not only healthy, but generates and sustains gratitude, joy and most of all… memories.
Memories and experiences are generally the only things we really have any ownership of. The only things we can take with us when we die (assuming we accept the idea of consciousness after death). This is true even of the addict, to whom neither money, nor material objects are as valuable as the immediacy of the felt experience. It’s just that experiences are better when you are able to remember them.
Jackee Stang, Founder of Delic Corp says “You are the best drug that money can’t buy. That’s right. The goal is sober. The goal is you. Life’s pretty darn trippy anyway…”
Sobriety is not a trend, but rather a collective awakening to the destructive patterns of civilization caught up in its own cycle of denial and unconscious addictive behavior.
I’ve been sober-curious/ serious all my life—ever since I came of ‘legal’ drinking age (which means anything over the age of 14—just kidding!), but it was psychedelics; marijuana and then magic mushrooms that diverted my gaze from the blurry bottle to the clear, albeit, convex glass of the psychedelic/ phenomenological realm. Piquing my interest in psychedelic art and psychedelic music, which as denizens of that eponymous realm, serve as catalysts to the recapitulation of the experience at will. So that once one has had the experience, it is available again and again through the mediums in which it has been captured. Namely music, art, dance, ritual and religion, as in the Santo Daime church, or the Native American Church NAC, wherein peyote and mescaline-containing cacti are employed as a sacrament.
Contrary to the popular opinion that marijuana is a gateway drug, I actually began to avoid drugs and alcohol because of the reductive (moderating) effect that marijuana had on the world. Slowing time down, or rendering it irrelevant, in favour of natural, ‘authentic time’ of the things themselves. Ideas that I later found were central to phenomenology, namely the phenomenology of Immanuel Kant and later Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Phenomenology is the study of the world as experience. We all practice phenomenology whether we know it or not. It doesn’t become obvious though, until one begins to reflect on those experiences in an effort to isolate what is universal in them. The ‘eidetic intuition’; Husserl’s term for the immediate recognition of the universal structures of consciousness, knowing, or noesis. Psychedelics being a kind of noesis or the direct experience of consciousness, where one actually experiences (actualizes) what the philosophers and physicists only talk about.
Consciousness is therefore not passive, it is active, constituting meaning out of the things of the world subjectively for us, rather than as representational pictures in the mind. But more than just constituting meaning, we are Being in the world (Heidegger’s response to Husserl), constituting and being constituted by it. Emphasizing the experience over the appearance, so rather than turning into a vegetable by the television, the experiencer regards the ‘vegetable television’ inside and outside their own heads; a term coined by the late Terence McKenna to describe the hallucinations of the plant entheogens.
The same can also be said of the naturalist, or the casual observer, taking in the sights that nature has on offer 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. There are moments of beauty, reverence and wonder in natural phenomena of all kinds. The wonder and astonishment that the observer constitutes through their ideas of the natural world is projected back onto them through what are known in the perennial philosophy as the correspondences, resemblances and doctrine of signatures. The ideas of universal mind, God, or consciousness itself.
Therefore, the ‘vegetable television’, or to coin another word, telestivision (Telesti- a Greek word meaning ‘goal’ or ‘purpose’, used by the gnostics to speak about themselves as ‘those who aimed’), is the faculty of consciousness that aims toward that which is hidden; the absolute unknown, in the same way that the phenomenologist ‘brackets’ their preconceived notions to see the essence of the thing itself. Cultivating a meditative gaze where one doesn’t just look at something, but lets their eyes lose focus so that the thing being perceived can move in to complete itself, allowing the observer to travel to that place clairvoyantly, or embody that object remotely.
In this way, one doesn’t even have to take psychedelics to have a psychedelic experience, which is why some people prefer not to take drugs; so that they do not jeopardize this pristine (baseline) state of consciousness. But by preserving it, out of fear of losing it, we also cannot test it against other states of consciousness, and other kinds of non-ordinary experience.
Much more than the firing or neurons, or the chemical components of dopamine and serotonin, consciousness is the thought of the universe, the baseline of all modes and states of mind, including altered states.
This is what people mean when they say, “I’m high on life”. They are high on this baseline experience, which often includes the endogenous release of DMT, endorphins, dopamine and serotonin of which many hallucinogens, particularly psilocybin, are non-selective serotonin receptor agonists.
I think everyone knows that there’s something strange about consciousness, even without drugs. Where drugs are perturbations (modes) of consciousness, consciousness is a perturbation of matter = energy (matter being equal to energy). Or a perturbation of information that produces matter = energy as a result. It is the baseline of all experience. A presence, like an uncanny visitation or the sense of being stared at. Not just the feeling of being watched, but the actual sense of sight and a deeper inner sight; that we are the ones staring, both inward at ourselves and outward through our eyes. It doesn’t matter what sense we are using, they all project from and introject back into, the same source. As it says in the Upanishads; not that which the eye sees, but that whereby the eye can see. It is unbelievable (intangible) and mundane at the same time, waiting for us to wake up and take notice.
Consciousness is old, the ontological primitive, but does not act like it because it is constantly having new experiences. Similarly, psychedelic drugs do not seem old, but they are. Their perceived youthfulness derives from being trend setters, influencers, ‘cool hunters’, (learning and informing through each new experience) and literally embodying a higher dimensional being. This is an important point, since my position is that consciousness is a higher dimensional being, a synthesis of all accumulated experiences (sometimes modelled as a crystal, or quasicrystal); aperiodic and non-computational.
We can sense this for ourselves; an unspecified ‘It’, the impersonal pronoun itself, exactly what we’d expect God to be; a haunting all-encompassing presence, neither human, nor animal, intangible, yet more real than the world we inhabit.
We can never identify what It is, because It is not part of its creation, rather It requires us to experience things on its behalf. We are a part of It, and It is a part of us; a remnant of a past visitation, a memory in our DNA. So that once the experiencer has had the experience, it becomes part of the collective memory of the Larger Consciousness System (to borrow a term from Thomas Campbell’s My Big TOE (Theory of Everything). Adding it to the set of possible experiences in the same way that information is stored and ‘brought down’ to become knowledge.
A continuity or cross-state retention where the experience becomes part of the collective memory of both the experiencer and even the experience itself. So that when we take a particular substance, we benefit from the accumulated experience of all users.
Consciousness therefore is the qualifying state for there to be anything to experience at all, or a body to experience it in. It dreams itself into the physical world, sacrificing knowledge of itself in order to have an experience, just as the individuated units of consciousness, ourselves, are sacrificed in order to have a similar experience, leaving that other, more comfortable (and some would say real) world of the soul behind.
Psychedelics, as I like to say, are both places and events, like a day that enriches the year. A space of time through a time of space. The trip is measured by where you go and what you do, and in kind, the year is measured by what you did and where you went during that year. The day is a model for the year, and the year is a model for the day… until we’re there again, to return, a year or two later.
That’s one day that enriches a year, and, looking back, one year that enriches the day.
Usually all anyone ever takes is a ‘trip’ or two a year. But of course, you can take it more often, and it might be a good idea, sort of like practice. If you want to remember, or learn to do something, you have to do it often.
Christopher M. Bache, author of LSD and The Mind of the Universe, is an example of an individual who has taken psychedelics more than most. Engaging in high dose LSD trips every few months for 20 years, developing over the course of that time what he called his ‘shamanic persona’. A state-specific alter ego (Bache 2019:314) created by continued visits into the psychedelic realm that seemed to take up residence there. Remembering what he had experienced, independent of his own recall. Quoting, “In the repeated opening and closing of consciousness in our sessions, a semiautonomous, state-specific consciousness is formed that retains and integrates all our psychedelic experiences…” and I would add, not only our psychedelic and psychic experiences, but those of everyone who has ever had, or taken them; the transpersonal.
This is in agreement with McKenna’s ‘machine elves’; autonomous state-specific beings, which seem to occupy this ‘place’ full time. My own experiences have introduced me to similar beings, I call them teachers, not so much because they are stewards of knowledge, but because they were literally presented as studious individuals in either tweed and corduroy suit or long knee length skirt, with glasses and neatly done up hair tunnelling through the underworld in layers that seemed to correspond with deeper and deeper levels of knowledge or learning. Each trip taking up where the last one left off, never seeming to deviate from its/ their path.
This imagery is poignant on many levels, and although subjective, probably corresponds to a more universal meaning in all of our lives. Communicating in familiar symbols and images until one has been conditioned enough to form their own symbols and ways of seeing and interacting with the Other through an active remembering that operates in a similar way to long-term memory, both in and out of the psychedelic state.
This kind of active remembering is known, as we have already said, as cross state retention. Like a dream, a trip is sometimes hard to remember. Dreams are the wet to the waking mind’s habitually dry state. Upon waking, we lose the immediacy of the dream, like water drying, and drying fast. But unlike dreaming, tripping takes place when we are conscious and awake, albeit a different kind of consciousness. It is still consciousness, or rather the perturbation of the same consciousness we are immersed in all the time. The consciousness of one subject of another (intersubjectivity), or even a blending or expansion of consciousness to overlap with other consciousnesses, ESP; the consciousness of the cosmos itself, or Mind at Large.
Finally, with the advent of psilocybin research and the legalization of marijuana, people are beginning to realize the potential of the mind as a reducing valve for consciousness. Literally a radio receiver not just for the electromagnetic waves (0-60 hz) necessary for normative brain function, but also subtler ones, such as scalar waves, that affect us, even though we are not entirely sensible to them because, at base, they are consciousness itself. The higher dimensional being otherwise known as It, or simply Other. The superset of all sets. The pattern of which matter is the crystallization of that pattern.