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Are We Recording?

teafaerie | Musings | Monday, March 23rd, 2009

I can see excellent reasons for allowing drug experiences to unfold as ephemera.  I get it.  I really do.  But when it comes down to it we need more data, damn it, and I feel like I have a duty to the community to gather as much information as I possibly can.  Or maybe that’s just how I justify my practice.  In any event it’s hilarious to listen to myself trying to read Finnegans Wake when the words keep rearranging themselves on the page, and this one guy’s crazy breakthrough experience is hands-down the most moving monologue I’ve ever heard in my life.

I’m particularly interested in primary records, by which I mean records that are made during the experience itself.  Hunter S. Thompson strapped a big clunky ’70s tape player to his belly when he wandered into the neon night in search of the American Dream. Both the raw tapes themselves and the gonzo articles that proceeded from them are records of his misadventures, but the tapes are primary and the finished pieces are secondary.  Your notebook doodles, EKG readouts, tapes of your drum jams, and the poems written in mustard on your walls are primary. Finished trip reports, recipes, and the musical comedy inspired by your experience are secondary.  Neither is inherently more valuable than the other, but primary records are hard to come by and rarely discussed.

It’s good to keep in mind the possible legal and social issues raised by evidence of crimes having been committed.  The ways in which your past can come back to bite you in the ass are not always predictable. Consider the case of the Canadian psychologist Andrew Feldmar.  In 2007, when attempting to enter the United States, a border guard Googled his name and discovered an article he had written wherein he admitted to having taken LSD twice in 1967.  Andy’s scofflaw admission resulted in him being barred from entering the country.  And that was over a mere secondary record with no hard evidence to back it up. Imagine how bong-toting Olympian Michael Phelps must feel about primary records these days!  Remember, almost every cell phone is a camera now, and they’re all plugged in to the shared data field.  Your friends might not intend to sell you out (at the moment) but stuff gets away from people.  It gets lost, or stolen, or accidentally left on abandoned hardware, or posted somewhere “safe” that isn’t.  I always joke that if I ever run for office I’m running on the Party Platform anyway, but in deadly earnest I may one day want to emigrate or get a job or something and it could really suck if some of my favorite records slipped out of my control.  And information is very slippery stuff.

Video records are especially problematic.  I’m personally ravenous for firsthand testimony.  I think I’ve actually read every experience report in the Vaults on the dozen or so substances that are of particular interest to me, and I often think how cool it would be if there were a large repository of video reports out there as well.  We could all benefit from seeing what various states look and sound like, and good demonstrations of cultivation, extraction, preparation and administration techniques would be an invaluable resource.  Unfortunately, in these benighted times, the risks involved with video can far outweigh the potential benefits.  People get locked up for life over this stuff.  It’s nuts.

Even if the enterprises that you choose to engage in are not, strictly speaking, illegal, videotaping them can have unwanted ramifications. This is a delicate moment in history.  Studies are quietly getting approved and showing good results, and so far the popular media is approaching the topic  of psychoactives with a refreshingly open mind. People relate to video much differently than they relate to text, and the intense nature of some of these experiences can easily frighten the untrained eye. And let’s face it, some people are jackasses. The folks putting their salvia vids up on YouTube, for instance, don’t seem to have given much thought to what sort of impression their activities might reasonably be expected to make on concerned parents, law enforcement agencies and members of the press. Also, remember that the vast majority of primary records are painfully boring, even to the participants, and most of the rest of them are bound to make you look like a moron.  What’s left over when you edit out the inane, the banal, the gobsmackingly pathetic, the utterly ridiculous, and the extremely personal? What would your family think?  Or your employer?

Another problem that comes up I think of as the Uncertainty Principle, though my abuse of the term probably makes Werner Heisenberg spin with unknowable momentum in his grave.  What I mean by it is the notion that the act of observing a thing changes it. It changes it in principle, and it changes it in practice if it distracts the voyager.  Extracting yourself to jot down notes or to change audio cassette tapes can become a disruptive chore whilst communing with the ineffable.  As a rule of thumb I’d say that the trip is always more important than the record, and if record-making is detracting from the experience then it’s not worth doing and it should be suspended immediately.

In general, though, I’ve become something of a booster for giving it a try, particularly with audio recordings. Keep in mind not to mention any specifics regarding illegal actions or substances and you should be pretty safe.  Most people forget about the tape recorder after a few minutes if it’s unobtrusive enough, and some people actually use it to good effect as a focus or an anchor.  Having observed hundreds of experiments, I can say with complete confidence that more people end up wishing that they had recorded more of their trip than the reverse.  You can always erase the damn thing.  You can’t choose to go back and record the experience after the fact.

One reason for capturing your trips by making audio recordings is that it gives you an opportunity to finally solve some of those eternal riddles: How many times has this happened?  Did I say that out loud?  Is our conversation really so incredibly deep and clever as it seems? What do we sound like when we’re high, anyway?  (On the other hand, perhaps there are some things that we’re better off not knowing…)
A record can be a window into lost time.  Some deep trance material apparently never makes it into long term memory.  Either memory isn’t set up to encode it, or it’s repressed, or it’s state dependent, or something else.  People frequently forget whole sections of a trip right after they take place, and later go back and find out to their utter amazement that they were like speaking in tongues for 15 minutes or something and they never would have known it if they didn’t have the recording.

Once when I took ayahuasca in the Amazon I found myself spontaneously singing a beautiful melody that was previously unknown to me.  It was haunting and timeless, rising and falling in subtle and intricate patterns; a delicately recursive and ever-mutating statement about mind and world, jungle, space, intelligence, the body, art, time and death. I sang my way out of a very dark place indeed and then held the flame aloft, warming everyone in the nighttime maloka with the golden sunlight of an honest-to-gosh icaro.  Everybody agreed that it had happened, but after it was over nobody could remember a note of it.  Nothing.  I tried and tried.  I had a sense of the feeling, more or less, but the fragments of the tune itself that I thought I could recall were deeply suspect.  Entropy!

The next day I blew off part of an awesome conference to travel by third world bus into Iquitos, where I spent my very last nuevos soles on a micro-cassette recorder.  There was another ceremony the following evening, and at one point I walked out into the jungle by myself and essentially made it happen again, but this time I caught the genie in the bottle!  It wasn’t the same one, but it was a real one and I got it – and now any time I want to I can sing it again, by heart.  It’s my favorite lullaby.  Also, by a particularly uncanny twist of fate, I managed to find out what it is. Or what it might be, anyway.  The first time I ever downloaded any icaros off of the net I pulled down some random 40 minute compilation and opened it up in iTunes somewhere in the middle of the track.  Guess what?  You got it.  I was all alone in the house when the voice of a little old jungle shaman inside of my computer speakers started singing the self-same song that had poured through me in the bejeweled night forest lo those many months before. I did all the classic tests too see if I was dreaming, to be sure.  Then I totally flipped out.  Eventually I managed to track down the person who had done the recordings and it turned out that this song was somehow considered to be intrinsic to the very area where my trip had taken place. Nobody would ever believe this story in a million years if it were not for the recorded evidence.  Even I wouldn’t believe it, and that’s the truth.

When taking drugs that affect short term memory, a micro-recorder with a play back feature can function as a buffer.  You know that game where you’re constantly sure you were just now saying something absolutely brilliant, but you keep on not quite being able to remember what we were just talking about? (If you love a train of thought let it go—if it comes back to you, it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, it never was…)  Well with the handy-dandy recording device, all you have to do is back it up for a few seconds and press play. You can probably even do it on your cool phone.  Just remember to hit record again when you’re done listening. […]

And hey—this could be the time that you finally get some really big insight, and you don’t want to forget what it was!  I’m afraid that most of my own revelations from on high have later proved to be subject to rather broad interpretation.  I once awoke in the morning after a multi-molecule bender to find that I had apparently managed to get the goods down once and for all.  I had circled and underlined something in my notebook dozens of times, then decorated the page with arrows and stars so I would be sure to take special note of the nearly illegible scrawl when I returned to my normal upright position.  And what was the message that I had so valiantly succeeded in preserving for suffering mankind?  ”It’s all one thing and it doesn’t exist”.  Riiiight.  I have notebooks full of such pithy proclamations and impenetrable koans.  I find that taking them down is quite satisfying to me at the time of their generation, and they provide me with no end of amusement after the fact, both cosmic and comic.

Sometimes the records are just awesome for their sentimental value; pix from trips that changed my whole life are like graduation photos or wedding portraits.  Just remember to keep the bong out of the shot.

Research can no longer be effectively suppressed.  When the formal institutions that we deputize to figure stuff out are unable to get the job done because of the limitations of circumstance and their own complex agendas, it falls to the proscribed field’s practitioners to gather and share information.  In the Middle Ages doctors had to rob graves or visit battlefields to study human anatomy, but by golly they did what had to be done.  There’s a long and glorious tradition of standing up in defiance of the idea that ignorance can be legislated, letting go of professional rivalries (which matter less when nobody can get paid anyway) and working together to figure out what the bleep is going on.  They can’t stop us.  We can’t stop ourselves.  Technologies of connectivity have made it possible for millions of private practitioners to pool their data and work together towards establishing some consensus.

Erowid is leading the charge of collecting and publishing various types of data, with a focus on secondary records, for obvious reasons. At this time it may be best to consider primary records to be personal records—records of a sort that you mostly keep to yourself or share with trusted loved ones.  However, primary records can be a big help when creating secondary records.  They can assist you in writing experience reports, for example.  More and more people every day are participating in the effort, mindfully recording the relevant times and dosages, sets and settings, and any other factors they deem to be of possible interest to fellow explorers, as well as noting their impressions of the experience itself.  Go team!  Thank you for playing!  Everyone who has the discipline to put in the extra effort rocks the Casbah.

And who knows?  We may yet live into a day when the primary records you are gathering now can be freely shared without fear. So consider holding on to the real gems; squirreling them away in safe little hiding places until the tide has good and truly turned.  Every bit of data brings us closer to understanding the Big Picture, and everyone has an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the evolving conversation. Also you’re so damn cute when you think you’re omnipotent.