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Head Trips 

Drugs and their religious uses, as experienced by three explorers of psychedelia

Wednesday, Jan 29 2003
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Now that the Bush administration is waging war on terrorism, the War on Drugs is playing a distant second fiddle. Still, in America today, hallucinogens are considered felony-grade contraband, but as some experimental folks are willing to argue, these same substances have been used as spiritual sacraments in tribal cultures around the world. From peyote to ibogaine (a hallucinatory substance extracted from a tropical shrub), psychoactive plants have been used from time immemorial for religious purposes. Of course, some naysayers may feel such rituals are just an excuse to get high. Either way, whether you're a believer or a skeptic, "An Evening With Clark Heinrich, Dale Pendell, and Daniel Pinchbeck" should shed light on the debate.

In this symposium, the three explorers of psychedelia discuss drug lore and its impact on contemporary culture. Drawing on philosophy, poetry, pharmacology, and mysticism, these experts know what they're talking about -- and much of their knowledge is based on personal experience. Heinrich, an ethnobotanist and the author of Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy, illustrates the relationship between holy rituals and ingesting fly agaric. Tracking the fungi's use in Vedic and Judeo-Christian traditions, Heinrich makes the case that these mind-bending toadstools have brought spiritual leaders closer to the divine by generating visions. Some of his conclusions are sure to be contentious -- he argues, for instance, that the philosophers' stone and the Hindu elixir of life were not mere mythology but rather code words for magic 'shrooms. But it's hard to disprove his argument that people have been getting intoxicated from trees, plants, and animals regardless of ethnicity or creed.

Poet, software engineer, and amateur chemist Dale Pendell is also a longtime student of ethnobotany. In his Pharmako trilogy -- the most recent of which is Pharmako/Dynamis -- Pendell explores the natural mood-altering "allies" humans have always experimented with. "Speed is the essence of modernity," he writes, and based on his comprehensive list of stimulants -- everything from chocolate to crystal meth -- he's not far off the mark when he claims that the need for speed is our culture's "ruling poison." In Dynamis, he takes readers on a stimulating tour of herbal history, injecting his own two cents while citing Freud, Li Po, and John Pemberton (the inventor of Coca-Cola).

Pinchbeck, an editor for imprint Open City and a writer for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, may be the most enthusiastic proponent of the three. In his debut book, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, he shares his own eye-opening tales of tripping, which he calls visiting the "spirit world." Though Pinchbeck makes a profound investigation of the modern psychedelic subculture that goes beyond raves, club kids, and the neo-hippies following Phish on tour, it's his personal transformation from a world-weary New York journalist to an itinerant nomad in search of euphoria that's the most telling. His detailed anecdotes of a 30-hour tribal initiation in West Africa (during which he put on a diaper in case he had a bowel movement after taking ibogaine) and his adventures at Burning Man reveal a writer who not only stops at nothing in getting the story, but who's also clearly passionate about his subject. Like Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Terence McKenna before them, these writers are serious about their psychedelic inquiries, and time spent with them is sure to be an awakening.

About The Author

Lisa Hom

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