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Full Review
Psychoactive Sacramentals: Essays on Entheogens and Religion
by Thomas B. Roberts (ed.)
Council on Spiritual Practices 
Reviewed by Scotto, 4/27/2005

Psychoactive Sacramentals is the latest book in CSP’s Entheogen Project Series, a set of books that includes the frustrating anthology, Entheogens and the Future of Religion, and Huston Smith’s important collection of essays, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals. The Chicago Theological Seminary and CSP held a conference in 1995, inviting “theologians, clergy, mental health professionals, transpersonal psychologists, and other professionals who shared an interest in entheogens” to get together and discuss the spiritual potential of these substances. Psychoactive Sacramentals collects transcripts and new essays from the conference participants into a wide-ranging examination of the complex web of significance that surrounds the notion of an entheogenic approach to spirituality.

I can’t really review this book from behind some artificial veil of impartiality; this subject is of pivotal importance to me in my life at this time, and the book’s arrival in our review box was eagerly awaited. I grew up deeply religious, attending a Missouri Synod Lutheran school through eighth grade, and attending religious instruction throughout high school in addition to regular worship services. Then a crisis of faith blindsided me in my freshman year of college, and ever since, I have wandered the dark roads and blind alleys of atheism and melodramatic existentialism before most recently settling into an amorphous, disquieting agnosticism. I don’t think this profile is particularly uncommon; the umbrella of the psychedelic scene at large contains a wide range of faiths, beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions, and there are as many people who ditched religion and never found a replacement as there are people who are finding their way within potentially rewarding and satisfying paths.

So I approached this book with a cautious eye. I still have yet to become comfortable with the term “entheogen” (“god within”), but I respect those who use it. And at the peak of many of my psychedelic experiences over the past several years, I’ve felt that blissful sense of connection and meaning that seems to represent a spiritual experience, but at the same time seems to border on the state of ego inflation described by Ann Shulgin in TIHKAL.

The book charged right at my skepticism with its first essay, called “If I Could Change Your Mind,” by Rev. Mike Young, the first part of which was delivered as a sermon to the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu. My mind boggled at the jarring notion of a sermon in a church involving such topics; clearly my Lutheran upbringing left me ill-prepared for the idea that religious teachers can have such progressive ideas. Young participated in Walter Pahnke’s well-known Good Friday experiment, and his essay neatly sums up the core dilemma that the book examines: how do we create a context in which the psychedelic experience can safely occur, and in which the full spiritual potential of these experiences can be explored and expressed?

It’s an important question, to be sure. Because we are driven underground in our explorations, because many of us distrust organized religion, and because of how the concept of metaprogramming has influenced parts of this subculture, psychedelic spirituality as it stands can be an intensely solitary pursuit. What this book offers is a varied collection of intelligent perspectives, guideposts that could potentially help disparate groups self-organize along points of resonance. One by one each author presents and examines a piece of the puzzle, and by the end of the book, the puzzle has by no means been solved – but it has definitely been clearly identified, and that in itself is a great step.

Huston Smith, one of the world’s foremost authorities on comparative religion, writes early on, “It seems clear that entheogens can produce religious experiences, but less clear that they can produce religious lives.” Roger N. Walsh, author of Essential Spirituality: The Seven Practices Common to World Religions, takes this a step further: “Entheogens may not produce religious lives, but they may initiate and deepen the religious lives of those who commit themselves to some form of spiritual practice.” One of the first examples we see is Stanislav Grof, whose essay “Entheogens as Catalysts of Spiritual Development” is a great introduction to Grof’s work in his own words. He began life as an ardent atheist and wound up a very spiritual person. Experimenting over and over again with LSD demonstrated that human consciousness obviously included a mystical component – the “holotropic” states that are often mistaken for delusional or psychotic states, but which actually represent true spiritual encounters. “What began as a therapeutic quest for the roots of emotional and psychosomatic problems changed spontaneously into a spiritual and philosophical quest,” Grof writes. “Healing now became a side effect of the mystical quest.”

Grof’s journey led him to develop holotropic breathwork, a renowned technique of transpersonal psychology. Few of us are likely to reach such heights, but Charles T. Tart offers another piece of the puzzle, broadening the notion of what might be a legitimate form of practice by suggesting “mindfulness” as an option. Tart’s 1969 anthology Altered States of Consciousness helped pioneer a field of study, and he reminds us very clearly that “Entheogens are powerful helpers, but they don’t guarantee these outcomes… They don’t automatically guarantee growth or love or light or revelation. They can be used in the service of other belief systems, and used in a very nasty kind of way.” This is the double-edged sword aspect that perhaps makes the rest of society so frightened of what psychedelics represent. Integrating these experiences into daily life is what needs examination, and what usually seems to need the benefit of some form of mindfulness practice. Tart describes mindfulness as “learning to tune in on a moment by moment basis to what am I thinking, what am I feeling, what am I sensing, what’s the state of the world around me, what’s my state and so forth.” There are many avenues to this kind of awareness, presumably, but we are at a disadvantage in our society if we intend to find our way to this state without relying on a tradition that has stood the test of time.

On the other end of the spectrum is the essay “Mysterious Tea,” by Annelise Schinzinger, a woman who was a member of União do Vegetal in Brazil for eighteen years. Her description of UDV’s practices has the compelling, quietly authoritative, internally consistent tone of a full, deep, meaningful belief system – this one just happens to incorporate twice monthly sessions with ayahuasca. She reiterates the need to incorporate insights gained from ayahuasca sessions into daily life, and offers many interesting examples and visions. In fact, this essay exemplifies for me the problem of staring at someone else’s belief system, and “wishing it were so” for me. She offers good background information on the many different religious roots of UDV, and gives inspiration for the notion that an entheogenic religion can be pieced together anew – but it’s also clear that that’s a treacherous path, upon which so much New Age mushiness has been the result.

“What Is Entheology?” by Rev. Aline M. Lucas presents a potential blueprint. She describes an experiment known as the Harvard Agape, in which a cross-section of divinity students pulled themselves together to create a syncretic, one-time only ritual utilizing MDMA as a sacrament. One participant reported, “We were continually possessed by a spirit of community… we all became better people, and certainly closer friends through our common experience of the agape.” The book doesn’t necessarily lead you to believe that you could substitute “random group of friends” for “divinity students,” of course. But this does point at my suspicion for what might substitute as an appropriate framework for those for whom “entheology” is too loaded an idea: “community” might be sufficient to contain the experience, and to generate and contain a body of tradition and knowledge that is suffused with both meaning and safety the way a religious tradition is.

Myron Stolaroff’s “A Protocol For A Sacramental Service” provides a framework for structuring entheogenic experiences, utilizing an experienced guide, a motivated, healthy candidate, and an overwhelming dose. Ann Shulgin’s “The New Psychotherapy: MDMA and The Shadow” adds pieces to this as well, in one of many places where the book implies an overt overlap between psychotherapeutic and spiritual practices. And probably the most pressing of these essays is “The Birthing of Transcendental Medicine,” by Rev. Karla A. Hansen, who faced terminal breast cancer with the help of entheogens, and who described how one very key experiment conducted using LSD to help cancer patients prepare for death led to a brief but promising and important burst of research. The well-publicized story of Sue Stevens and her husband has already begun to condition the media that MDMA might have important possibilities for assuaging terminal patients of physical pain and psychological stress, and we also know the story of Aldous Huxley, who firmly believed that utilizing LSD in terminal cases “would make dying a more spiritual, less strictly physiological process,” and who used LSD on his deathbed to transition from this life to whatever happens next. Hansen’s moving story reaffirms the importance of continuing this research, especially at a time when our culture’s attitudes toward the end phases of life are so unhealthy and bizarre.

There’s a lot more to digest here, and not every essay resonates as fully as these do. There are some inexplicable moments where it’s clear the book is trying to do too much, to address too many problems and issues, and the anthology format definitely leaves you to your own devices for interpretation. And in a few places, there are uncomfortable undertones of something approaching elitism – this time a spiritual elitism, instead of the intellectual elitism of Huxley’s day.

But as Grof points out, “True spirituality is universal and all-embracing and is based on personal mystical experience rather than on dogma or religious scriptures.” When it comes to finding a place for these drugs in your life, you are always ultimately alone as you make your choices, without the benefit of a priestly caste to guide you. There’s no psychedelic Torah or Bible or Quaran, and there likely never will be. And some of us will likely never again feel the comforting sensation of sharing a rich, historical belief system with a congregation of like-minded parishioners. Instead, we’re left with small, quiet, personal messages from one unique soul to another, hopeful transmissions that remind us we do at least share some basic human experiences with each other, we do at least share some deep and meaningful parts of the journey called life with each other. Some of those hopeful transmissions are contained in Psychoactive Sacramentals, by the grace of a few outstanding souls. It is small comfort, but comfort nonetheless.

Originally Published In : Trip
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1 Comment »

  1. enjoyable review…this part:
    ‘There’s no psychedelic Torah or Bible or Quaran, and there likely never will be. And some of us will likely never again feel the comforting sensation of sharing a rich, historical belief system with a congregation of like-minded parishioners. Instead, we’re left with small, quiet, personal messages from one unique soul to another, hopeful transmissions that remind us we do at least share some basic human experiences with each other, we do at least share some deep and meaningful parts of the journey called life with each other.’ struck me as truly inspired. I share that experience but could never express it as he did. i’d like to thank him for that.

    Comment by T.H. Caldwell — 5/2/2005 @ 7:01 pm

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