Psychedelic Defined

To make this mundane world sublime,
Take half a gram phanerothyme

To fathom Hell or soar angelic,
Just take a pinch of psychedelic

During my interviews about psychedelic drugs, I allowed my respondents to define “psychedelic” rather than trying to define it for them. Not surprisingly, I got a variety of answers, and rather than simply choosing my favourite, I’ll try to sketch out their breadth. A good place to start is the term’s origin and etymology: two couplets (quoted above) shared between Humphry Osmond and Aldous Huxley, each coining a term to describe the mescaline experience. Both terms, phanerothyme and psychedelic, mean approximately the same thing: it manifests the mind (or shows the spirit).

Thus, this definition, from Heru (a cultural engineer)*:

“Psychedelic I take in the most literal sense, manifesting the mind. A thing which is psychedelic is a thing which brings us more in touch with the nature of our consciousness and our minds as an active process of assembly. In Buddhism, rather than the five senses we normally think of, they describe six senses. So the five main senses, but the mind is considered a sense too, in that we react psychologically to events which occur in the mind as much as we do to impressions we get through the other senses. I see psychedelic as a thing which brings us more into contact with that level of our comprehension, which is a direct apprehension of how we’re organising, compiling and creating ontology.”

One obvious way in which the use of a substances could effect this is via hallucination, a facet which Merc (a seeker) emphasises:

“Something that makes me question the reality around me. Since I started with psychedelic drugs in particular, I’ve always been interested in the idea of reality being very pliable, being something that’s very subjective, and I find psychedelic drugs are  proof of that.”

Mark’s attempt at a definition, on the other hand, focuses on the key examples of psychedelics, which I should point out are generally agreed upon. LSD and psilocin mushrooms are the prototypes and were mentioned by nearly everybody (in other articles when I use the term “classic psychedelics” it is these or similar substances that I refer to). Others, such as ayahuasca, come up less often but are not disputed; still others, such as ketamine and cannabis, are more controversial and less prototypical, but are still considered psychedelic by many people.

“There are certain commonalities, like they have hallucinatory properties, which I don’t think is essential to the category because you have drugs which are definitely psychedelic but are not hallucinatory. I think the essential quality for me is that they’re drugs which mess with your reality engine, the part of your brain which constructs your sense of reality is being tweaked, so you have a different experience of that construction of reality. So a drug that makes you hot or cold, or merely makes you hallucinate, would not fall into this category. It’s actually got to tweak this metaphysical region in the brain.”

Exploration Stargate by Daniel Martins

The above takes on the definition are all about the experience specifically: it tweaks our reality engine, making it clear that reality is pliable, putting us in contact with the machinery by which we construct reality. Then we get a teleological perspective of sorts, pointing to its uses, and therefore hinting at intentionality. From Julian (a student of the hermetic arts):

“Psychedelic drugs are specifically an external substance used for the purpose of mind expansion. The thing with that is drugs that can be described as psychedelic can be used for non-psychedelic purposes, and vice versa. But essentially a substance used to explore parts of the mind that in regular modes of consciousness aren’t quite so readily accessible.”

Going more in depth as to application and potential for benefit is Kairon (a biophysicist):

“…something that will reveal to you some aspect of cognition or reality which you otherwise would not have access to. … Having that sort of gestalt pattern matching facility clocked into overdrive would be a good example. You normally have a much more constrained notion of what you’re doing or what you might be doing on a day to day basis, or what might be going on in the situation you’re observing, but the space of possibilities is quite a bit broader than that. So having your faculties greased a bit so that you can explore more of that space is extremely valuable. Having been made aware of that possibility you can then often bring that back into every day life, and that will inform your decisions.”

Once we start talking about application and benefit, of course, we have to deal with situations in which that is not being received. From Hermes (a mathematician):

“I don’t think that there are psychedelic drugs and non-psychedelic drugs. I believe that psychedelia is an aspect of any particular state of consciousness, and it depends entirely on how it’s being used. You can ask yourself, is this a mind-revealing experience, am I learning something about myself and the world around me, or am I doing something habitual or just for the hell of it? In fairness, there are some substances which strongly suggest to the user, or may even force upon them, some kind of new insight about how it all works. And there are certain experiences that one cannot help but learn from. Even just the fact that such an experience is possible says something profound about how reality is structured, so you can’t help but learn something from that experience.”

I’m wont to argue that, given suitable reflection, any change in perspective, once compared to any other perspective, can provide meaningful insight if we examine the ways in which the two are different: a “psychic triangulation” of sorts, to fitting with the cartographic metaphor for psychedelic use. In other words, seeing how you experience yourself and the world on any substance and comparing that to when you’re sober can deepen your understanding. This remains true regardless of the perceived quality or accuracy of the new perspective: for instance, it works perfectly well with alcohol, usually considered impairing. However, for many users, the perspective given by what we tend to call “psychedelic” is seen not as quite the opposite, providing remarkable insight and clarity. From Marz (a nice, peaceful, little psychedelic, light-worker hippie-child):

“I really wouldn’t classify psychedelic as a drug, I’d classify it as spirit, as an exploration of other realms, and as a tool to help you get there. It’s what Terrence McKenna described as a switch or a dial to different dimensions: it gives you the ability or the access to different places you regularly wouldn’t be able to get to on this stream of consciousness. … To me, psychedelic is a direct connection to all that there is, to truth.”

Brigitte (an explorer of self) speaks similarly:

“A portal, a gateway, given to us in this experiential playground – earth I consider a playground, that we are all children of the cosmic community, and using psychedelics is a way to remember, remind and reacknowledge who we are in this great big cosmic landscape.”

In both of the above two, the idea is of another reality into which we can enter, which would probably imply to a reader that it’s the same for everyone. So, to balance that, from Lyrebird (an experimentalist):

“There’s a level of variability attributed to it. They act as amplifiers. I’ve had some experience with other substances, but the thing that seems unique about the psychedelic ones is that there’s never a feeling of a foreign presence or that your attitude or disposition is being pushed in a direction that it doesn’t want to, it’s just that your state of mind is crystallized in some way. … It suggests a kind of introspection and revelation. It’s very psychological, it relates to self-exploration.”

Meditation Pose by Paul Zulauf

Another respondent (a male, 17 year old Caucasian) seems to, like Lyrebird, identify the insights or revelations as having to do wih self-knowledge, rather than access to some external reservoir:

“It opens up a whole new way of thinking and seeing the world. It’s kind of like unlocking potential in that sense, allowing you to really see what’s in front of your face, something that you’re looking for but it’s too close, or even too far sometimes. It’s kind of like binoculars to a higher state of being. I find on psychedelics – on acid at least – I’m more articulate, I move more freely, I’m more energetic, happier… just generally all around good things, I feel like I’m an over-man of sorts. … They’re kind of like a binocular that lets you briefly see yourself at that state, and once you come down you’ve got to work towards that state, you’ve got to climb that mountain. … They point you in a direction to go. By the end of it you’re left with an arrow which indicates a direction.”

Psychedelic, of course, also has its historical situatedness. It refers to art or music that tends toward being highly experimental, often involves recursiveness or spirals, bright colours and a sense of timelessness. These (and other) associations are important to bear in mind. When I think of psychedelics, multidimensional, fractal realities of unimaginable complexity are in my mind… but so are moments and spaces of seemingly eternal peace, serenity and joy, and the feeling that in its grand complexity, everything is perfectly simple. Psychedelics seem to bring out the spiritual side of people, and they seem to give us a taste of what we imagine enlightenment might be like. They magnify reality, drawing us to look at what we normally ignore, revealing the sometimes cosmic importance of the things we take for granted. They amplify parts of the psyche we didn’t even know existed. Sometimes they cause visions, sometimes they’re not visual at all; sometimes they overwhelm us, and sometimes they feel comfortable, familiar; sometimes they catalyze a communal energy and lead to incredible oneness of spirit, and sometimes they make us want to be alone. They are, in a word, potential: potential for what is impossible to predict.

Have respect, or be destroyed.


*All my respondents were given the opportunity to provide a pseudonym and a self-description, which appears in the brackets in the form they requested.

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