The pandemic has ramped up the intensity of our experience, as it stress tests individuals and societies. What began as a question of disease and quarantine, has since become a truly generational shock to the system. Major institutions and social structures are under question. Complacency and ‘normality’ are in the dock. Amid all the chaos of this altered state, how can we best emerge with our societies — and our minds — intact?
Stanislav Grof, a Czech psychiatrist and early pioneer of psychedelic therapy, suggests that drugs like LSD act as ‘non-specific amplifiers’ of experience: undiscriminating catalysts for the light and shadow embedded in our psyches. And much like LSD, COVID-19 has unearthed far more than its viral surface.
Erik Davis is a psychedelic historian, author, journalist, and the founder of the Techgnosis blog. Davis sat down with Rebel Wisdom’s David Fuller to discuss the strangely salient lessons of three psychedelic pioneers — Terence McKenna, Philip K. Dick, and Robert Anton Wilson — in how they scanned the choppier waters of visionary experience.
Terence McKenna has been called the ‘Timothy Leary of the 90s’. A popular speaker, writer and philosopher of hallucinogens, McKenna advocated for an ‘Archaic Revival’ in Western culture through a return to ancestral shamanism.
Philip K Dick is one of science fiction’s best-known and widely-celebrated authors, his books were made into films including Blade Runner and Minority Report. Following a series of paranormal experiences in 1974, Dick maintained a deep interest in altered states of consciousness.
Robert Anton Wilson was a novelist, futurist and countercultural landmark. Best known for his Illuminatus! trilogy, Wilson developed a unique literary style that fused surrealism, the avant-garde, themes of magic and the occult, and the disordered frames of conspiratorial thinking.
Far from a total loss, Davis suggests that COVID-19 — if approached correctly — can offer rich possibility in developing one’s spirituality and a sound approach to the conventional world.
See below for edited excerpts of Erik’s interview.
David Fuller: Do you think the idea of a non-specific amplifier is a helpful frame?
Erik Davis: I think it’s a wonderful frame because it forces us to reflect on our own reactions. Most drugs do something that’s pretty regular. But with psychedelics, all sorts of things can happen. And by talking about non-specific amplifiers, [Grof] is saying that the experience is not caused by LSD: what causes your experience is your own set and setting. So, if I have a visionary experience, that’s something of mine; if I have a hell trip, it’s something I have to reflect on.
But it [the non-specific amplifier frame] also, I think, helps explain the surreality or weirdness of the situation we’re in. Because it’s not like there’s a specific event that we’re all reacting to more or less the same. It’s a distributed event that I don’t really see too much in my life — I see the signs of it or how other people are interpreting it, but it’s very nebulous. It’s like an invisible bomb went off. And we’re in the aftershock of it.
So, we’re in a lightly psychedelic state where there’s multiple narratives, multiple possibilities, multiple emotional reactions, that have an excessive, surreal, dreamlike quality even. These polarised political events have revealed [too] that the media as some kind of coherent maintainer of consensus reality is just gone, really.
David Fuller: I also want to bring in the concept of ‘spiritual emergency’, [which] is again coming from Stan Grof (who I interviewed on Rebel Wisdom). We’re in a medical paradigm that often pathologises altered states and the spiritual experience. An altered state or transformational process that [doesn’t] really fit into a Western medical model is often labelled as psychosis or mania. And he [Grof] came up with the concept of ‘spiritual emergency’ to talk about anything that didn’t [fit in the model].
Where we see all of this repressed stuff from the American culture, from the British culture, just coming up, it feels to me like the entire culture is in the middle of some kind of spiritual emergency. Would you agree with that?
Erik Davis: Kind of. In a way, spiritual emergency is the best model [we] have as an alternative to breakdown and psychosis. A lot of people in the 60s embraced trauma as a rite of passage into a new state. It opens up the possibility that you walk out on the other side and you’ve left a lot of stuff behind.
And we don’t think that way anymore. We are much more scared about trauma. But I think it [our current approach to trauma] is not setting us up as well as it could be for what we’re going through. This is a traumatic experience, but it can also be an illuminating experience — and there can be illumination in the trauma.
The three guys that I talk about [Terence McKenna, Philip K. Dick, and Robert Anton Wilson] all spent time in something like psychosis. But they also were spiritual figures. They also had prophetic, visionary experiences that had integrity and consequence and richness. And so the fact that there’s psychosis in the picture, or that there’s social breakdown or a big uptick in mental disturbance, doesn’t mean the whole thing is unravelling. It also means there are other possibilities open.
In a non-narcissistic way, this is a spiritual opportunity.
David Fuller: You’ve spent a long time looking at weirdness and how to navigate altered states in strange times. Who should we be listening to and what are the kind of tips that we can take for operating now?
Erik Davis: In looking at what they [Terence McKenna, Philip K. Dick, and Robert Anton Wilson] were doing, I figured out some navigational tips that apply to many more things than I thought initially. And one of those things is what I call the ‘tightrope walk’.
Psychedelics introduce a new thing in the equation. You can have an extraordinary visionary experience with religious implications. And you almost have a choice: do you hold on to that visionary conviction, or do you go, ‘Okay. Something more is going on here’?
I was interested in the way that these guys resisted it [the visionary conviction]. It has to do with a quality of scepticism and with what I would call ‘ordinary reason’. I like to distinguish reason from rationality. Rationality is an attempt to to support and understand large systems of explanations that can account for a greater and greater percentage of reality. By reason, I mean something that’s a little bit more close to home. [It’s] that sense of bringing a sceptical quality to your own experience. It’s like, ‘Is this going to be good for me? Is it not going to be good for me? What if I do that?’ You’re no longer on solid ground. Your own responses create the gravity that allows you not to fall.
David Fuller: The whole area of conspiracy theory is very psychoactive. A lot of it covers very archetypal material. Projecting Satan onto Bill Gates is a classic one that you see people doing online. In some sense, becoming a conspiracy theorist is probably a necessary initiation for all of us.
Erik Davis: Robert Anton Wilson talked about a place called ‘Chapel Perilous’. When you’re in Chapel Perilous, there are only two ways out: you either come out a stone cold paranoid or a radical agnostic.
A lot of conspiracy theorists get away from the [mainstream] first layer and get stuck in the [alternative] second. But the radical agnostic will ask, ‘Why do I trust these conspiracy narratives? Why do I trust my own fear?’ You realise how multiplicitous, how chaotic, how multi-dimensional, the world is. But you’re OK with that because you’re back — you’re back with a difference.
And you realise that it’s not actually about the language or the concepts or the political models — it’s about bitterness and resentment and powerlessness and fear and stirring that stuff up and getting it to stick on certain narratives. And that’s how a lot of narrative control happens.
I recommend people who are going through this realm become very good at picking apart the affect or the emotion from the narrative. Keep alert to what’s going on. Your own emotions are not secondary to that process. That’s the way we step forward with more coherence and in light.
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Our Shared Pandemic Psychedelic Trip, with Erik Davis was originally published in Rebel Wisdom on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.