How Will History Remember the Psychedelic Renaissance?

By Jordan May|December 5, 2016

Social movements are remembered in history for the things they do and the actions they take, not for what they inadvertently hope will happen.

The is part 6 of The Psychedelic Diversity Conversation.
Read: Intro | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

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The first time I took a psychedelic drug was the single most profound experience of my life thus far.

Over a few short hours, my mind was exposed to the world in myriad ways that I had never considered were remotely possible. The static world that I had built up around myself over the years, the accumulated weight of societal conditioning and cultural expectations, fell away to reveal a vast interconnected landscape of growth, change, and renewal.

At the peak of the trip everything I thought I knew about myself, about anything at all, was decimated by the recognition of hard truths I had never before been forced to confront. The experience left a permanent mark on my psyche, and I consider it to be a major landmark in my development as a person.

After this initial exposure to psychedelia, with psilocybin mushrooms, I immersed myself in the world of psychedelic culture. It became my mission to understand how psychedelic drugs work in the mind to facilitate experiences that can drastically alter the course of one’s life, and how these substances can be most effectively utilized for personal and collective transformation.

Psychedelics are still an important part of my life, but the period in which I first became infatuated with them, and the culture surrounding their use, is markedly different from more recent life events that stick out to me as equally important developments in my own personal growth.

Several years after psychedelics pushed me to recognize the dire need for radical transformation in our society, I was introduced to the world of radical political action by individuals who had no experience with these substances. At that point in time, I’d had countless conversations with fellow psychedelic explorers about how we were tired of being complacent, and how psychedelic drugs had sparked a desire to engage our communities and create practical alternatives to the status-quo.

So it was a bit of a surprise that when it came time to halt the construction of a fracked-gas pipeline in my home state, demand the utilization of city resources to provide basic public services in neglected neighborhoods, and engage local voters to prevent the re-election of a notorious criminal prosecutor, the people who were leading these efforts and actually doing the work didn’t seem to have much of an interest in drugged-out states of mind.

Pymposia’s Psychedelic Diversity Conversation aimed to explore this increasing polarization – between the individualistic approach of psychedelic culture and the ongoing mass social movements that are actively redefining the political landscape of our society. Specifically, the featured authors drew attention to the lack of racial, gender, and economic diversity within psychedelic spaces – dynamics which place our own movement in a unique position of privilege.

Many of my own thoughts and feelings have already been expressed by the other writers, and so in the interest of avoiding needless repetition my goal with this article is to relay a sense of urgency in the call for meaningful support and solidarity.

It can be difficult to translate the good intentions surrounding these buzzwords into action, so in this article I hope to provide readers with the means for calling on your own psychedelic experiences to inform tangible real-world actions you can take to engage critically with your community.

The other articles in the diversity series made it abundantly clear that the psychedelic movement occupies a position of privilege; those who traditionally fill the room in psychedelic spaces are represented by an overwhelmingly homogenous demographic, made up of individuals who are implicitly granted access to resources that are largely barred from others.

To echo the sentiments of Natalie Ginsberg of MAPS, who called on the psychedelic community to own the advantages that our collective privilege grants us – we have access to institutional power that other movements simply don’t have, and we should use it.

Social movements are remembered in history for the things they do and the actions they take, not for what they inadvertently hope will happen. So what can we do, as a movement that truly believes in the transformative power of psychedelics, to show real solidarity with those who do not have the luxury of idly observing as their very livelihood is undermined?

For starters, start showing up. This year’s national Rainbow Gathering in Vermont attracted well over 5,000 people, many of whom travelled across the country, to take psychedelics and pray for peace in self styled faux-indigenous ceremonies. Why weren’t these same people at Standing Rock in such large numbers, offering real support to Native people and actually standing up for peace and environmental justice?

Over 70,000 people attended Burning Man this year, each paying a minimum of $390 for general admission. The event espouses values such as radical inclusion, civic responsibility, and immediacy; but what support has the Burner community offered to the movement for black lives, those who are undocumented, LGBTQ people, or the working class in general – those who can’t afford to party in the desert for a week?

My point is that as a culture, the psychedelic community needs to be honest about where our priorities lie. Many of us are happy to dish out large sums of cash and temporarily uproot our lives to dance at music festivals, attend academic conferences, or fly halfway around the world to drink ayahuasca, because these things are personally beneficial to us and we have access to the means to do so.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with doing any of these things, but we need to stop pretending that we’re doing them for anyone other than ourselves. If we’re going to claim that these activities are truly transformational, why should anyone take us seriously if we collectively refuse to engage with the world in ways that are actually transformative?

So what does transformation look like?

Outside of showing up in support of others, what actions can we take in our own communities to encourage real cooperation and solidarity?

Psychedelic events, particularly music festivals, are unique in that they offer outlets for ordinary people from eclectic backgrounds to promote their craft and share knowledge. Attracting anywhere from hundreds to thousands of eager people, these spaces are ideal for hosting workshops surrounding political education, trainings for direct action, and the sharing of skills that can be practically implemented at a community level.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, as violent tensions continue to rise throughout the country, now more than ever, we need people who are willing to step up and take on the systems that threaten the most vulnerable among us.

Such mass-mobilizations require informed analysis and adequate training in the skills needed for organizing groups of people, navigating organizational and political structures, effective community outreach, blockades and other direct action tactics, conflict resolution and de-escalation, street medical care, bail funds, legal support, and other harm reduction practices that inevitably become necessary when people are critically engaged with the world they live in.

Groups and individuals who offer these services are abundant, and it’s alarming to me that they don’t have any significant presence at psychedelic events framing themselves as ‘transformational’, ‘radical’, or ‘visionary’.

Psychedelic gatherings have the potential to mobilize huge numbers of people, should we have the foresight to make these increasingly privatized spaces accessible. For those of you who may be involved in organizing small regional events, consider inviting speakers and facilitators who break the mold of what is conventionally expected at a psychedelic workshop. Resources are included at the end of this article for anyone who has a desire to take action and get involved.

Now, keeping this casual, I feel like I can see many of you as you read my words.

I can visualize the knee-jerk response to what could be perceived as a kind of psychedelic ‘political correctness’, and I can feel your resentment. I want to be fully transparent here in saying that I’m not dismissing you, and I want to address you directly. There’s no doubt that as social justice issues have come to forefront of public discourse, a culture has developed that encourages the ‘calling-out’ of others for instances of problematic behavior – not actually for the sake of encouraging understanding or accountability, but as a means for progressives and activists to garner social capital by publicly belittling a group or an individual.

‘Call-out culture’, as it’s often dubbed, is certainly a problem. But as critical thinkers who work with psychedelic drugs to broaden our perspectives and widen our horizons, I sincerely hope that we have the collective ability to listen to those who have legitimate criticisms of our movement and genuine concerns with the direction that it’s headed.

Conversely, I hope that those of us doing the ‘calling-out’ can recognize that our actions also carry weight, and that there are ways to voice our dissent compassionately and strategically, that acknowledge individuals as complex human beings who respond to situations differently, instead of regarding them solely as “representations of the systems from which they benefit.”

I say all of this as someone who is disillusioned with both the psychedelic and progressive communities at large, but I wouldn’t speak out if I didn’t truly believe in the transformative power of psychedelics, and the genuine goodwill of the people who share that belief.

My hope in expressing these concerns isn’t to drag our community through the mud, but to challenge it to do better. And we can do better.

Many of us pride ourselves on our ability to eagerly dive headfirst into challenging psychedelic experiences because we understand that personal growth requires that we work through discomfort. Similarly, coming to terms with the realities that face our movement may be challenging, uncomfortable, and even painful; but our growth depends on it.

I want to leave this open-ended by posing a question.

When we consider what is happening in the world around us, when we consider what has been voiced in this diversity series, where do we stand? In the due course of history, how might we be remembered? As a conglomerate of the social elite who campaigned for our own personal right to cognitive liberty? Or as a diverse movement made up of people who saw something of value in the psychedelic experience and called on it to actively transform the world we live in?

I won’t pretend to know what the future holds. But I sincerely hope that whatever it may bring, I can be proud to say that our community played an active role in helping to shape it for the better.

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.”
– The Prophet Kahlil Gibran

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Jordan May

Jordan May is a writer who explores the intersections between drug policy, psychedelics, and community engagement.