The subject of using various substances in Magick has come up for me in a number of ways recently. A friend, during the discussion about Magick and spirituality, started to tell me about her partner, who is a shaman. That’s ok with her, but she has got a bit concerned that he has been encouraging her to join him in using ayahuasca, a drug which he uses to create an altered state of consciousness. She is unwilling to do this, and she doesn’t like the effect it has on him, but she wondered if this might just be a prejudice on her part. During the course of the discussion, I told her that the western mystery tradition does not tend to use hallucinogenic drugs as part of its approach.
This conversation came hard on the heels of another one, this time with a prospective member of the Magickal Order. I told him that we discouraged the use of mind-altering substances in Magick, and would prohibit their use during rituals. This surprised him, as he had assumed that the use of drugs was normal in Magick.
All of this made me think that it could be time to a look at the place of drugs in Magick.
On the face of it, one might reasonably suppose that drug use and Magick go hand in hand. After all one of the greatest magickians of recent times, Aleister Crowley, was not only a drug user but also the writer of ‘Diary of a Drug Fiend’. A large part of Magick is about creating an altered state of consciousness, and what better way to achieve this than mind-altering drugs? My generation was part of the boom in drug use in the ‘60s and ‘70’s, and being part of the counter-culture meant that having drug-inspired mystical experiences was de rigour. However, not only was that then, not now (you had to have been there, man) but that era taught me something about the value or otherwise of hallucinogenic drugs.
Alongside all this, for my generation it was crucial to have read Carlos Castaneda. His experiences, as an anthropologist doing research into peyote use in Mesoamerica, led him to abandon the objective scientific stance and to become the apprentice to a Yaqui shaman, Don Juan. In my Master’s dissertation I touched upon the awkward issue of the truth or otherwise of these accounts; but that problem need not be discussed here. Let us merely say that this body of work sparked huge interest. It challenged the western arrogance of always being the ‘expert’ western scientist amongst savages; it demonstrated that spiritual experiences outside the western Christian norm were common, complex and satisfying; and it pointed the way to using hallucinogens to promote spiritual life. It led to many interesting spin-offs, such as the sacred mushroom theories of John Allegro and, later, Robert Wasson. Hallucinogenic drugs, it seemed, were the doors of perception, the gateway to mysticism, and always have been.
However, there are a number of important ‘howevers’ that need to be thought about.
The Native American tradition of using such substances as peyote, Jimson Weed and ayahuasca is not new. The drug is taken, even if by a newcomer, in the context of a very well-established tradition of spiritual activity which has developed its own rules and regulations. There is a tradition which tells the user what to expect and how to understand the experiences which are to follow. There is a community and a culture in which this experience takes place. There are experienced and knowledgeable practitioners who guide the user in how to understand this voyage into the unknown: what entities he might encounter, how to communicate with them, how to get what he wants from them, and how to make sense of things. These practitioners will look after the user before, during and after the experience, and the user will feel held and supported as part of a tradition and community which normalises these experiences.
These factors are not always the case for a modern western user of traditional hallucinogens. There may be some awareness of what to expect, but often the user is thrown into a powerful experience which is completely overwhelming and for which he has no signposts. Rather than being educated in what to expect, how to react and what to create during the experience, the user can be disorientated and distressed by frightening or shocking images. Rather than producing mystical awareness and enlightenment, the experience can be the opposite. Yes, it will open the user up; but to something that makes no sense at all.
A powerful drug experience will often leave the user entirely at the mercy of circumstances, with no ability to react to danger or any other external stimuli. At those moments it is vitally important to have people around who can be trusted to look after the user and prevent any danger to self, from wandering off, from choking on vomit, or becoming a danger to others.
All mystical experiences create very strong emotions in us, and this can be very challenging. They break down our ordinary way of perceiving the universe, physically, emotionally and intellectually. This can bring on profound disorientation which can mean a very much reduced ability to manage the ‘normal’ world. During that time, and this may last for hours or even days, the user will need to be supported and held, emotionally and physically, and instructed in how to understand the experience. This after-care is a vital part of the duty that an experienced practitioner owes to a novice, and it is totally irresponsible to neglect any part of it.
I have no problem with the Native American tradition of drug use; in fact I have a great respect for it, even though I recognised (with some regret) that it was not my tradition. If I were to seek this experience I would be much happier doing so in the context of a traditional ceremony within a permanent cultural community, run by experienced practitioners who were able to provide the support necessary.
There has been a great deal of discussion, since the 1960s, of the possibility that much of our spiritual experience in the west comes originally from drug use. However, I rather regret to say, there is little evidence that this has been the case. Perhaps the medieval mystics saw their involved visions whilst they were tripping on ergot. Perhaps early witches rode, not on broomsticks but on the experience of rubbing on an ointment made of the broom plant. Perhaps the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem owed his transcendental experience and his shining face to the hallucinogenic substances in the incense. Perhaps; but probably not. We can speculate, but we have no evidence. What we do know is that in spite of the high level of herbal knowledge possessed by witches, magickians and monks, there is no reason, except for wishful thinking, to suppose that any hallucinogenic substances were ever used in the western mystical tradition.
What the western mystical tradition does prescribe is hard work. It stresses repeated training in ritual and the use of colour, imagery and sound; even fasting and self-mortification. Modern Magick puts great emphasis on pathworking and use of the imagination to connect inner and outer worlds. It certainly wants the practitioner to have out-of-the-body transcendental experiences, but it wants these experiences to have come about as a result of structured, predictable and controlled practices, following intense preparation and work. All the same experiences which hallucinogenic drugs offer are available to the mystic or Magickian, but they are to be created consciously and intentionally. The way of the western Magickian is the way of the Will: for the true Will of the real Self to achieve and assert mastery over the subordinate aspects of the personality; and then to make changes according to this Will. The Magickian starts as a learner, obviously. But right from the beginning, Magick is a training of the Will, and an assertion of the Magickian’s Will over both their inner and outer circumstances of life. The Magickian is not a passive participant in ritual but the instigator, controller and ruler within it.
Altered states of consciousness are not an end in themselves: they are the gateway to achieving a goal. The shaman (often using hallucinogens) travels to the Underworld for a purpose: the retrieve split-off aspects of a person’s soul, to find out knowledge about the inner or outer worlds, or to gain personal power. The Magickian has similar goals – healing, knowledge or power to create changes. In both cases we are going to this place for a good reason, not as tourist. When we are passing through Customs as we enter the inner world, we tick the ‘purpose of visit’ box named business rather than the one named pleasure. Of course I do have a lot of pleasure on these journeys; but that’s not the point of going.
Over the last 37 years I have spent in the psychiatric profession, I have seen attitudes change radically to the use of hallucinogenic drugs. In the late 1970s it was common to assume that the use of such drugs would lead to breakthroughs in patients suffering from psychoses. As there seemed to be a chemical parallel between a drug trip and a psychosis, it looked like hallucinogens could be of therapeutic use. Sadly, this proved not to be the case, and in spite of a great deal of work on the subject, during the time I was doing my training, no progress was made. Psychotherapy is impossible under the influence of drugs, and even where drugs seem to provide a level of freeing up, the attempts to bypass the real work involved are rarely helpful. I don’t want to reject it entirely – I am aware that this is still a very live debate and over the past few years I have read research articles that describe good results from into the use of psychedelics under controlled, supported conditions for depression and anxiety. Perhaps (unbelievably) we may find medicine at some point prescribing psychedelics instead of anti-depressants, and providing something equivalent to the supportive environment provided by shamans.
The same process happened with the social and spiritual use of drugs. If you have ever been with someone (as I have) who has taken LSD or peyote and now believes that they know the meaning of life, the universe and everything; you will see the problem. The understandings and insights that come from such experiences prove to be illusory. Writing which, at the time, seemed to contain the great Truths of life, proved, read after the fact, to be incomprehensible and banal.
It is also, sadly, the case that much of what happens to us under the influence of drugs and alcohol does not stay with us. Profound truths and insights disappear in the cold light of day. It is common not to remember much of what went on, except a generalised feeling either of wellbeing or the opposite.
This is not to say that drugs do not open the personality to a spiritual dimension – they certainly can. But without the correct support, intellectual, emotional and physical, they are often a dead end. The Golden Dawn ritual quotes from the Chaldean Oracles: “stoop not down into that darkly splendid world, wherein lieth a faithless depth, and Hades wrapped in gloom, delighting in unintelligible images, precipitous, winding, a black ever-rolling abyss; ever espousing a body un-luminous, formless and void.” This often describes the situation of the spiritual seeker who uses drugs: it appears to be the royal road to enlightenment, offering glittering prizes and deep insights with little time and effort expended. But in fact it too often turns out to be a merely illusion, which can draw us off the path into a dead end of emptiness. The western mystical tradition draws upon the surer foundations of hard work, tradition and mentoring to achieve a deep and dependable experience of inner worlds and higher dimensions.