Can Psychedelics Help Save the World?

The contention of the twenty-five contributors to the new (Inner Traditions/Park Street Press, November 2022) anthology How Psychedelics Can Help Save the World: Visionary and Indigenous Voices Speak Out is that yes, they can, though not necessarily will, and not without some important qualifiers.

The contention in question requires some context. Mystics, explorers of deep psychonautic realms, intuitives, the long-held prophecies of multiple Indigenous/traditional tribes and societies around the planet, and the clearly evident and observable developments of increasingly rapid climate change; madcap materialism; political turmoil and divisiveness; and gross economic and social inequality all point to an inescapable truth: the longstanding dominant mindset of spiritual disconnect that has cast its shadow over the human enterprise has run its course and is no longer viable or sustainable. The flatland days of continuing as we have been are all but over.

All that may sound distressingly disheartening and bleak—even hopeless. But what if there is something else going on underneath—or encompassing—the chaos and confusion? What if, as these visions and prophecies are pointing at, something is unfolding beyond the trajectory of deterioration? What if we have reached an inevitable stage in our collective journey that absolutely had to happen, and that what is really going on is a collective death and rebirth journey? And, what if the almost universal ignorance of our true nature has to fall away to make room for a new understanding and vision of how to live sustainably in peace and harmony on our beloved planet.

Impossibly idealistic? Maybe. Wish-fulfilment fantasy? Could be. But what are the alternatives? Do we give up on the world and sink into apathy, depression, despair, me-first desperate self-preservation, or bitter and violent lashing-out? It seems to me and a lot of others that such states of mind and attitude are pretty much guaranteed to become their own self-fulfilling prophecies.

Maybe your doubt or disbelief that things could be radically different is because you haven’t understood or glimpsed what is possible and/or haven’t envisioned what you can do to make things different. That’s where the question posed in the title of this essay comes in. As a foundation for the discussion, I’ll share with you a universal principle taught, or at least implied, by the great mystics and visionaries throughout history. 

Lasting outer change begins with and is fueled by inner change.

Of course there is a great deal we can and must do in the external world to improve conditions on multiple levels. But without at least some degree of awakening to our true nature as divine beings interdependently intertwined in an eternal cosmos of indescribable brilliance, the wise remind us that we’re all but certain to sooner or later re-create the same dysfunctional conditions again and again.

So, can psychedelics help save the world? The twenty-five visionary contributors to How Psychedelics Can Help Save the World would say yes, again with qualifications. There’s a saying that when the patient is an advanced state of illness, strong medicines are required. While the psychedelics are definitely not for everyone, a compelling experience-based case can be made that they are our most potent tools and allies when understood and applied with skill and intention and when the insights and learnings they open us up to are brought back and integrated into daily life. Whether formal or informal, some version of ongoing mindfulness and awareness practice is necessary to ground the learnings into lasting change.

If you’ve experienced these kinds of deep and sometimes shattering encounters and insights, you know what I’m talking about. If not, please consider starting by questioning the label “drugs” or the belief that a substance can only produce artificial enlightenment. These are not substances for numbing and escaping. When understood correctly they’re reality medicines. The great mystics and teachers know from experience that the awakened state is our true, unconditional nature. It’s not a belief, a concept, or the property of any religion, and it’s not a state that is added on to who and what we already are. It’s what we land on as we release the confusion and blindness that prevent us from opening to that unconditional reality. 

In optimal conditions, psychedelics can temporarily cut through, overwhelm, or dissolve the “virtual” and limiting structures we live by and show us who we really are. Sometimes they do that by opening up realms that elicit spontaneous utterances like “Oh my god!” or, “This is Home.” Sometimes they help us by, as contributor to the book Laurel Sugden put it in her chapter, taking out the trash—in other words, showing us what is standing in the way of our healing and awakening so that we can finally let go of old dysfunctional stories and wounds.

I’ve mentioned qualifiers. First, these far-from-equilibrium states are of course temporary. You may leave your known world for a few hours and go dancing across the cosmos. But you’ll be back at base camp before long. You could drink ayahuasca or eat psilocybin mushrooms a hundred times and remain basically the same. You could have an experience of satori (sudden enlightenment) and go back to working from the same playbook you thought you had transcended. Worse, you could conclude that your experience of satori makes you special and superior. 

It’s humbling and long-term work learning to surrender one’s fearful clinging to the illusion of the separate self and trust the awakened state that may actually look like nothing. As a Tibetan Buddhist saying goes, “Emptiness becomes luminosity.” Or how about this one? “Enlightenment is the final disappointment.” – the disappointment of all our fantasies and illusions about who we thought we were and what we thought we needed. As well, with or without the assistance of psychedelic sacraments, we can fall prey to a kind of obsession with our own case history and fail to take the essential next step of participating in the vison for a healed humanity for the generations to come.

But again, the contention addressed by the question posed at the outset of this short essay and by the contributors to How Psychedelics Can Help Save the World is that we can make the inner changes that lead to compassionate action in the world and that many more people than the number currently working with them can, in optimal circumstances, benefit immensely from skillful, intentional use of psychedelic plants, fungi, and other related mind-manifesting substances.

By Stephen Gray

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