Psychedelic Citizens: Does the Inner Voyage Serve the World?

Many social commentators and historians have remarked on our current cultural moment’s similarity to the 1960s, in ways both good and bad. The US is sharply, sometimes violently, divided between Right and Left, long-standing structures of injustice are being acknowledged and interrogated; and experimentation with psychedelics is becoming increasingly mainstream, and considered in a positive and hopeful light. A host of new studies, picking up where the original research of the 1950s and 1960s left off, attest to psychedelics’ therapeutic potential. The core of psychedelics’ power, for self-development or to treat conditions like anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and more, lies in their power to break up patterns of “rumination,” or negative thought-loops, and open up the possibility of introducing fresh, healthier patterns of thought. In November 2020, Washington, D.C. joined the roster of US cities and states which have legalized or decriminalized the use of some psychedelics. With its Initiative 81, which received 76% voter support, D.C. decriminalized ayahuasca, iboga, mescaline-containing cacti, and magic mushrooms. 

In pop culture, in the early days of COVID quarantine, many viewers turned for consolation and mental stimulation to the psychedelically-flavored imagery of the adult animated series The Midnight Gospel, which featured interviews from comedian Duncan Trussell’s podcast. The Midnight Gospel took viewers on an eclectic and surprisingly deep tour of topics including Buddhism, Bhakti, death, loss, forgiveness, and the nature of reality itself. The finale of the series’ first season featured an audio clip of Ram Dass, one of Trussell’s main spiritual inspirations, intoning “Just be here now.” Even podcasters in the sometimes-controversial genre of “bro spirituality,” wellness, and “human optimization,” like Joe Rogan and Aubrey Marcus, now often serve as a first point of contact for people to hear about the mind-expanding potential of psychedelics. Rogan, a comedian, UFC commentator, and jiu jitsu black belt, has been given the unlikely title of “the current pied piper of psychedelics” by Forbes magazine, placing him on a level with iconic figures like Timothy Leary. 

This would all be well and good, if more people were simply turning to psychedelics for therapeutic purposes, or to rethink their habitual reality tunnels and possible underlying prejudices. However, the darkest corners of the alt-Right, including QAnon conspiracy theorists and the January 6th Capitol rioters, also have their ties to the current psychedelic Renaissance, as well as to New Age spiritualities in general. Jacob Chansley aka Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman,” was a long-time psychedelic user before his unlikely catapulting to fame on January 6th; as one Reddit user said of him, simply, “I always figured the world would be a better place if everyone took psychedelics once. I’m now rethinking that position.” Since psychedelics also confer highly personal gnostic experiences, a psychedelic user like Jake Angeli might simply grow more and more convinced that he had unique insights into how the world was run (via collusions of an imagined sinister elite), which people in the mainstream could not appreciate. In a Washington Post Magazine article in March 2021, Marisa Meltzer delved into the intellectual forerunners of the alt-Right New Age, which, she argued, had misdirected people’s countercultural desires for unconventionality and hidden meaning. 

Historically speaking, as well, the original War on Drugs was inherently anti-black, whereas the modern psychedelic movement is noticeably white, as many people have remarked. Indigenous cultures around the world have long used psychedelics for shamanistic and healing purposes; in recent years, Western society, in its search for meaning, has gone from pathologizing those practices, to fetishizing them. That white people are able to take advantage of the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, and to discourse about them, largely without fear of punishment, is privilege. As a woman, too, it has been impossible for me not to notice the predominantly male make-up of the original cohort of 1960s countercultural visionaries, and the patriarchal undertones of their Messianic self-imaginings. Considering the history of psychedelics, as well as recent events, it behooves us to re-examine psychedelic usage and spiritual self-exploration from a socially-conscious perspective. How does the inner voyage serve the world, and how much time should we spend turning inwards, rather than turning outwards in service towards our fellow humans?

The original counterculture/s of the 1960s, a parent of the diffuse yoga community in the present-day US, contained both quietiestic and escapist elements, and grand ambitions of broad social restructuring. In particular, we see this dual, or perhaps muddled, set of intentions in the thought of the luminaries of the original psychedelic movement, Timothy Leary, Ram Dass/ Richard Alpert, Robert Anton Wilson, and others. The US government’s famous determination to make an example of Leary, which led to his becoming an international fugitive and several years in prison, certainly seems like a tacit admission that there was something revolutionary about this new chemically-assisted self-exploration. As Terence McKenna later said, “Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third-story window,” but because “they open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”

Back in the 1960s, Timothy Leary’s ubiquitous catchphrase was “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” The phrase conjures images, say, of Leary addressing a throng of blissed-out hippies, about to enjoy some high-quality psychedelic rock and hedonism, at the Human Be-In in San Francisco in 1967, rather than organizers working to achieve their platform for social change. However, Leary had, in fact, always envisioned purposes for psychedelics beyond the recreational. Even while a lecturer and researcher at Harvard, Leary had championed the use of guided visualizations and psilocybin for reducing rates of prisoner recidivism. In his 1965 Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out, Leary admonished, “When you turn on, you are not a naughty boy getting high for kicks. You are a spiritual voyager furthering the most ancient, noble quest of man. When you turn on … You leave LBJ and Bob Hope; you join Lao-Tse, Christ, Blake. Never underestimate the sacred meaning of the turn-on.” Leary saw psychedelics as a way of waking people up to the arbitrariness of their inherited value systems, and to their own infinite creative potential to craft new, better, more compassionate systems of belief and living. 

Leary also answered, Socratic dialogue-style, the question put to him by an imaginary audience, “Dr. Leary, What Will Happen to Society After Everyone Turns On, Tunes In, and Drops Out?” He answered, optimistically, 

“The League for Spiritual Discovery [his organization at the time] has worked out detailed blueprints for the next cycle of man’s social evolution… In summary: be prepared for a complete change of American urban technology. Grass will grow in Times Square within ten years. The great soil-murdering lethal skyscrapers will come down … The transition will come either violently (by war) or gently, aesthetically, through a psychedelic drop-out process. In any case, there is nothing for you to do in a collective political sense.”

Viewed through the lens of the present, Leary’s optimism, and that of other countercultural figures, seems hopelessly, irresponsibly naive, especially because many Baby Boomers eventually migrated either into neoliberal capitalism, or fully to the right. Most people were, and are, not interested in starting their own religion, but only in a temporary, exhilarating experience that they can come down from. Why, then, would our current wave of psychedelic experimentation have any more dramatic effects than the (arguably) failed original? 

Even prior to the dawn of the 1960s, proponents of the psychedelic voyage were acknowledging its “trippy,” enjoyably mind-bending components, but also forming apologia for the broader social value of such experimentation. Aldous Huxley, an English writer and early Western student of Vedanta, in his 1954 The Doors of Perception, recounted his personal experience with mescaline. He concluded that, while it did not exactly confer enlightenment, it could nudge the practitioner into states of realization about the transcendent and interconnected nature of all reality that would ordinarily take years of disciplined spiritual practice. Seeming to anticipate criticism that this was mere “dropping out” to enjoy the spiritual lights show, Huxley wrote, 

“… there is no form of contemplation, even the most quietistic, which is without its ethical values….The sum of evil, Pascal remarked, would be much diminished if men could only learn to sit quietly in their rooms…. And to these enormous negative virtues we may add another which, though hard to define, is both positive and important. The arhat and the quietist may not practice contemplation in its fullness; but if they practice it at all, they may bring back enlightening reports of another, a transcendent country of the mind… into a world of darkened selves, chronically dying for lack of it.”

In essence, Huxley argued, meditation and psychedelics not only kept you out of trouble (an ironic point given the US government’s reactions to them in the 1960s), but practitioners could transmit a kind of “trickle-down spirituality,” at least a small taste, to people enmeshed in the maya, the illusion, of mundane material life. 

One obvious critique of Leary’s and Huxley’s model is that only a privileged subset of people have the luxury of withdrawing into a chemically-facilitated, ever-expanding inner landscape. One could also make the accusation that this idea of the spiritual elite, returning from their voyages inward like Moses coming down from the mountain, is rather pompous and self-aggrandizing. One could at least ask whether psychedelic explorers have truly striven to spread their discoveries and insights far and wide, or whether they have tended to stay within a small cadre of like-minded individuals, and to “preach to the choir.”

A recent book, White Utopias: The Religious Exoticism of Transformational Festivals, by Amanda J. Lucia, explores this festival subculture of feel-good spiritual materialism and appropriation of Eastern spiritualities, which justifies its existence, in the words of Seane Corn, with the principle that “our evolution is the revolution.” Modern-day transformational festivals prominently feature the use of substances like LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, and MDMA for purportedly spiritual purposes, to rocket oneself into a “peak experience” that will hopefully leave one a changed and improved human. Lucia and others, however, have noted that these festival goers are predominantly white, affluent, and often self-congratulatory at their chemical voyages. A recent article in SF Weekly notes, without regret, that the iconic transformative festival Burning Man might not reassemble after COVID. The author Veronica Irwin hilariously confirms the media stereotype of Burners as “disproportionately white, often upwardly mobile, and frequently subscribing to Silicon Valley’s strange mix of performative eco-consciousness, social media progressivism, and the barely concealed fetishization of John Galt.” Tech execs, boasting of their “humanness,” camped out in the desert with a fortune’s worth of gear, and a small army of staff to minister to their needs. Andrew Murray Dunn, who describes himself as a recovering former sufferer of “Silicon Valley Savior Complex,” says that this subculture will always have a shallow approach to spirituality and psychedelic experimentation, as long as it conceives of this adventure as an individual journey, divorced from the communal context and social responsibility that served as safety bumpers for the ego within indigenous traditions of psychedelic usage.

Unlike the current array of psychedelic popularizers, one can at least argue that Leary, and other 1960s countercultural figures, suffered and sacrificed for their beliefs, Leary perhaps most at length. Rosemary Woodruff Leary, Timothy Leary’s third wife, and fellow psychedelic pioneer, provides a valuable feminine perspective on the psychedelic revolution in her autobiography, in which she details supporting Timothy through his various legal troubles, and ultimately orchestrating his escape from prison and flight to Algeria in 1970. Timothy, Rosemary recalled, was unquenchably optimistic when his legal difficulties began, envisioning their 1966 trial (for trying to cross into Mexico with a small amount of marijuana) as historical, a chance to vindicate their spiritual beliefs on LSD in the courts, even though it felt to her more like a grubby, small-town media circus. He was also, Rosemary hints, perhaps too willing to sign others up to suffer for the cause, since she served thirty days in jail in 1966 for refusing to testify against Leary and their associates, and ultimately lived as a fugitive for 23 years after separating from Leary in 1971. Eventually, Timothy Leary himself agreed to turn informant for the FBI, in return for shortening his prison sentence, so perhaps his willingness to suffer for his beliefs had a limit. His friends were divided on whether he had merely fed the FBI irrelevant, decoy information, or whether he had truly betrayed them. Ram Dass and Allen Ginsberg condemned him, whereas Robert Anton Wilson triumphantly pointed out that no one had ever gone to jail as a result of Leary’s testimony.

Robert Anton Wilson is a less-well-known thinker and spiritual teacher than Timothy Leary or Ram Dass, but he was a highly iconoclastic, humorous, and humane advocate of constantly examining what he called one’s habitual “reality tunnels”, and, when appropriate, using chemical assistance to do so. Together with Leary, Wilson set out the eight-circuit model for the evolution of human consciousness. Although, in theory, a well-adjusted adult would have activated their first four “circuits,” or developmental benchmarks, by the time they reached maturity, Wilson observed that the majority of people in the modern-day U.S. had “bad first-circuit imprinting,” which meant that their nervous systems were stuck in a reactive state of perceived emergency. “This is the first level of meaning in our brutal, cynical proposition that most people are almost as mechanical as sci-fi robots,” Wilson said. “A man or woman entering a new situation with the anxiety chemicals of a frightened infant coursing through the brain stem is not going to be able to observe, judge, or decide anything very accurately.” Wilson’s understanding that the majority of society was in a constant low-grade state of mental suffering because of their bad lower circuit imprinting helped to imbue his worldview with compassion and a lack of judgment when people lashed out. 

While the lower four circuits were susceptible to manipulation and “brainwashing” by the government, religion, cults, advertising, or any other fear-based rhetoric, activating the upper four circuits, Wilson and Leary believed, was the key to mankind’s continuing evolution. The upper four circuits corresponded, roughly, to increasingly deep levels of enlightenment or samādhi. Those who activated the fifth, neurosomatic circuit had tapped into their natural bliss state at simply being alive, and enjoyed increased control over the animal reactivity of their lower four circuits. Great musicians, artists, and philosophers throughout history, Wilson said, had been neurosomatic adepts, able to confer just a taste of that bliss to the unawakened via their works. One could activate the fifth circuit through meditation, prāṇāyāma, cannabis, or psychedelics; drugs were not the only way, but just a tool in the toolbox. In his day and age, Wilson estimated, partially thanks to the countercultural movement of the 1960s, around 20% of the population were neurosomatic adepts. When that figure reaches 51%, Wilson said with emphasis, “a major historical revolution will have occurred.” Even without venturing into the more esoteric realms of the highest circuits, Wilson believed that a shift in human consciousness, via yoga, spiritual teachings, music, and psychedelics, could change the world.

Wilson himself was not insulated from hardship or heartbreak during his life, but developed his theories of human potential in spite of that. He had had polio as a child, and suffered from health complications as a result throughout his life. When Wilson was in his early forties, he was out of work and on welfare for several years, and lived with his wife Arlen and four children in run-down apartments filled with tableaus of human misery that caused him to weep with pity for his neighbors. “I was doing Sufi heart-chakra exercises every day,” he said, “to open myself more and more to love for all beings … without such self-work, I could easily crumble into the bundle of paranoia and self-pity that many a 1960s idealist had become during the Nixon Counter-Revolution.” Most shattering of all, Wilson’s 15-year-old daughter Luna was beaten to death in 1976, during a robbery at the store where she was working after school. Somehow, Wilson emerged from his grief with his spiritual beliefs confirmed, rather than undermined, after he saw how Timothy Leary, and a wide array of people in the New Age community, gathered around his family to support them. His voyages with psychedelics and meditation did not insulate him from experiencing grief, but they did help him to not become cruel or vengeful as a result. 

There are few countercultural figures of the 1960s more beloved than Ram Dass. When my mother was a college student in the Washington, D.C. suburbs in the 1970s, she went to hear him give a talk; today, the Love Serve Remember Foundation continues to present his teachings through a host of courses, podcasts, and events, including a BIPOC satsang on May 17th, 2021. The story of how Richard Alpert became Ram Dass is ingrained in New Age mythology: while Alpert and Leary were heady young professors at Harvard in the early 1960s, they conducted a series of increasingly wild experiments with psychedelics, often using themselves as subjects. Their life paths diverged, and Alpert traveled to India, in search of answers to the existential questions that his LSD trips had awakened in him. Eventually, after much wandering, he met the guru and Bhakti-yoga adept Neem Karoli Baba, who, as Alpert recounts, had a miraculous knowledge of his personal life and inner mental workings. At Neem Karoli Baba’s beckoning, Alpert presented the twinkling-eyed guru with a hefty dose of LSD; the guru swallowed it down and … nothing happened. Alpert, the scientist, was convinced.

As Philip Goldberg points out in American Veda, part of Ram Dass’s genius was that he presented himself as a teacher, rather than a guru, and was also candid about his own continued growth, mistakes, and new spiritual insights, as the decades rolled by. Dass also emphasized social responsibility and service, rather than escapism, with his Seva Foundation and his Hanuman Foundation. Although Dass’s original audience were Baby Boomers, he retains his appeal, and has even regained some traction, with younger generations. A GQ article on Dass, published just around a year before he passed away in 2019, acknowledged his still-charismatic spiritual presence, and the freedom with which he had fused elements of Buddhism, Bhakti-yoga, secular mindfulness, Sufi mysticism, Judaism, Christianity, and more in his teachings. Famously, after Trump was elected, Ram Dass, never a fan of the right, put a picture of Trump on his puja table, and looked at it regularly each morning. Dass did so to remind himself, and to remind others, to create space between their instinctive feelings of dislike and anger, and their actions in the world according to their dharma, which should be undertaken for the sake of justice, and not to satiate their feelings. This is a nuanced point to make. Dass was actually referring to the Bhagavad-Gita’s teaching that “without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.” Without the grounding of dharma and satsang, however, others in yogaland, in the years of turmoil following Trump’s election, did fall prey to spiritual escapism, and to the idea that current events necessitated no practical actions from them.

In the mid-twentieth-century, in the wake of World War II, social theorists like Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm, and Theodor Adorno grappled with the problem of how so many ordinary, not particularly evil-seeming people had fallen prey to authoritarian ideologies which led them to dehumanize and turn on their fellow humans with great violence. These thinkers concluded, rather depressingly, that many people in the modern world felt little desire to actualize their potential for free choice and discernment, but would rather give themselves over to ideologies that dictated their values for them. As Robert Anton Wilson would say, such people have become “robotized” by their belief systems. Most people who have experimented with psychedelics can attest to their power to reveal the hidden potentialities of the mind, and to “waking up” to the realization that they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Psychedelics, and other esoteric and gnostic practices, are tools. Community, connection, tradition, and social responsibility provide needed boundaries around those tools, without which psychonautic adventures pose the danger of spiraling into narcissism or a savior complex. Psychedelics, like any self-exploratory or spiritual practice, are not a “magic pill” to end hateful ideologies and fanaticism; rather, they gain meaning and effectiveness when wedded to a spirit of love and service to others.