I think about this topic from time to time and recently I’ve noticed my Tumblr stream lighting up around it, so I figure I might as well talk a little about my experience with them and how I tend to think of their relationship to the altered states of consciousness produced in ritual a little.
Let’s start with the basics. To date, my experience with entheogens has been with those produced in plant and fungal organisms. With the exception of some college experimentation lo these many years ago, they have also all been with legal substances, or controlled substances (ayahuasca) taken under legally sanctioned conditions (vegetalismo religious ceremony). With the exception of some of the college experimentation, they have also all been taken as part of a deliberate program of spiritual exploration and development.
When it comes to the really strong entheogens? I have used them only a few times. I’m not hardcore like Daniel Pinchbeck, so take what I say hear with the appropriate grains of salt.
(Regarding the legality: I support the decriminalization of these substances broadly, for the sake of their spiritual uses, yes, but also just because I think the War on Drugs is a monstrous social policy that has made a mess of things on a global scale. Worse, it has been used as a justification for, and means to obscure, blatant colonialism and racism. In the meantime, though, I am not eager to put myself at odds with the laws of the land. It’s a practical rather than moral concern for me, so no judgment against you from me if you decide differently. Just be smart, alright?)
My most common entheogen is widely available and comparably subtle: tobacco. Tobacco can do a lot, in part because its use is multifaceted. Not only does it generate altered forms of consciousness, but many (not all!) of the spirits with which I work receive it as an offering. Smoked, it changes my position to the relationship of the spirits and attracts the spirits, making it pretty darn useful.
The altered state is also mild, allowing me to remain ritually alert, active, and responsive to the needs of a ritual working (at least in general; there are some exceptional cases). It also gives the spirits a degree of access to the subtler parts of my physis, and can facilitate spiritual cleaning and the reception of potency. This seems true not just of me, but of other materia. Tobacco added to talismanic operations has often facilitated consecration, whether burned, soaked, or just mixed in.
I don’t use tobacco outside of my ritual work, in part out of respect for its place in my spiritual life, but also because I am suspicious of engaging tobacco’s powers where I am not consciously attending to the spiritual dimensions of my environment. It seems like an easy way to pick up unwelcome spiritual influences. While tobacco does seem to do some sorting out of hostile influences on its own, I suspect some of that sorting is responding to the ritual environment and might not be so true, say in a bar.
I will on occasion use alcohol for its mind-altering capacities. When I do so, I tend to select the spirit to match the spirits with which I am working, frequently letting the alcohol sit within a consecrated space before consuming it. The matchmaking process seems partly to be a matter of terroir, of the roots of the alcohol in regions and practices, but other times the match is harder to explain. The matching and consecrating does seem to help tune me into some spirits, but it doesn’t usually have the richness or depth of the tobacco work. While alcohol makes a good offering, it doesn’t seem to do double duty like tobacco. It is either an offering or an entheogen, not both.
(Though, yes, as an offering it is sometime returned for consumption, but that consumption anchors spirit in my body and life more than it modifies my awareness. Those may be on something of a spectrum? I’d have to think about that a little more.)
Both tobacco and alcohol feel like ‘open’ source materials to me. They don’t require a lot of negotiation. That openness may sit within other pacts (be they personal or regional or cultural or religious), but I suspect that there is just a core generosity to these substances that facilitates ready work with them.
Ayahuasca was something else. The opportunity to take it felt like an invitation, sometimes quite literally; I could feel the plant letting me know it was going to be headed my way before news of the opportunity to sit with it circulated. The ceremony itself was part of that, with the ayuascero opening the room and welcoming participants and plant into the work. Once things got going, it really felt like the plant itself was running the room. And I don’t know how else to say it, but it felt like a plant intelligence. Not an angel or demon, god or muerto, but a plant.
This wasn’t the talking to algebra to dogs that Gordon talks about, but, well, talking roots and photosynthesis and communion with the earth (there is some muerto action around that, for sure), to a bunch of antsy mammals that tend to run around a lot. There was this gentle insistence that, in spite of all the mammalian trappings, there was a dimension of ‘human’ experience that operated along the continuum of the plant. “Here, look, you’re here, too.” Except that the ‘me’ that is there is weird.
In some of the discussion around entheogens, I have seen people say things to the effect that mystical experiences are mystical experiences, chemicals or no. That just wasn’t my experience with ayahuasca. A big part of that experience was being moved into a different form of cognition, a form of understanding that doesn’t apprehend the world in the same way ‘I’ do as a human being. It interfaces with other intelligences differently and, at the most intense peaks of that experience, it was difficult to conceive of myself, much less conceive of myself in human terms.
The dimensions of that sort of cognition are so disparate from my own, that I couldn’t even remember I had occupied them until my second session with ayahuasca. I caught myself thinking, “this, again” and realized I had forgotten about “this” until the sitting. That second time, I was able to pass the memory of the state back to myself, even if the state itself ceased being accessible after the session.
The closest thing I have experienced to that are fever dreams in which it starts to feel like mind is being animated by something distinctly alien. In light of ayahuasca, I suspect that is because those fever dreams are animated by viral and bacterial intelligences in a manner akin to the way ayahuasca sessions are animated by its plant intelligence. There are some interesting ramifications of that, no?
That said, ayahuasca was a little bit like tobacco in that it seemed to open the physis to spiritual influences, soften it, making it more receptive to cleansing and modulation, and it helped to negotiate that space. There is a generosity there, but it was much more directed. To feel ayahuasca go to work cleansing was something else!
Despite the alien intelligence, ayahuasca seemed very concerned about teaching, about exploring and activating my personal capacities. Sometimes, that activation seemed to be for my own sake, but sometimes it seemed to be part of how the plant ran the room. It would activate this or that spiritual capacity and put it to use for the ceremony as often as it would put it to use for myself.
The proper lessons of the sessions, though, tended to manifest after the fact. They were more like seeds planted that came to fruition over the course of my daily work. While I couldn’t preserve the ayahuasca-consciousness, the experience of operating under it facilitated my ability to enter into other forms of consciousness with spirits more familiar to me. It also left me with a lasting impression of spiritual depths of the material world itself, and of how my own spiritual work rested upon it.
Amanita muscarias fell somewhere between the ayahuasca and tobacco-alcohol experiences. They had a personality to themselves, one that I felt it appropriate to address and query before making use of the the substance. They operated lower down in my consciousness, though, manifesting as an intensification of awareness followed by more inchoate, but rich, dreams. I wonder if part of that may have been a difference in expertise. Whereas the ayahuasca experience was anchored and animated by an experienced ayahuascero, the work with the muscarias was private and thereby a little more indirect.
Even granting that, the content of the muscaria work contained much more of my own spiritual work than the ayahuasca experiences. Spirits I recognized circulated in and out of it, like people walking in and out of a forest. The muscarias provided a point of ingress, but they themselves seemed to be above and over the process. In some of the dreams, they were looming over scenes in which spirits known to me interacted, like redwoods overlooking a picnic.
The intensification of awareness that characterized my experience with the muscaria reminds me somewhat of my experience with psilocybin in college. While I only took mushrooms once, the defining feature of that experience was the way in which every space became a rich and distinct world unto itself. I could turn my head from one world to another, and back again, and the awareness of those spaces were so intense as to shut out surrounding perceptions.
Unfortunately, while spiritual work motivated my taking psilocybin, the environment in which I took them only allowed a modicum of attention to be directed toward that. Still, as with muscaria, I became aware of familiar spirits moving into the space opened by the psilocybin.
The stronger entheogens seem to intensify my powers of perception and experience, but the intensity of the experience comes with a significant decrease in agency within that experience. Perhaps frequent use would allow me to say otherwise, but I suspect the real benefits to agency come after the work with the entheogens, as I can use the intensified perceptions and experiences to inform and sharpen my more narrow agency and awareness within ritual work. The virtues of sobriety, again.
There is also a sense in which the states of awareness cultivated by powerful entheogens run counter to the states of awareness cultivated in other forms of ritual. I frequently find that spirit moves to the level of my awareness and in the stronger entheogen states, the forms spirit takes are genuinely alien and difficult to comprehend in terms of ritual work which is organized according to the agency of a human person (me) in human time and habit.
The world unveiled by entheogens has been intensely concrete for me, severed from the sorts of generalities and motivations that would animate magical operations. If anything, I have become less interested in concrete magical workings because of my work with entheogens and more interested in connecting myself to broader and deeper spiritual movements within the world. That is part of what has given my spiritual experience a more gnostic cast and made me more likely to affirm its fundamentally witchy character.