How Social and Climate Justice Activism is Psychedelic

In the Rastafarian religion, “you and me” is expressed as “I and I,” to show that all people are equal under Jah. Most religions recognize some aspect of nonduality—the philosophical, spiritual, and scientific understanding that all beings and particles are fundamentally one.

Some people discover nonduality in college, or while reading Eckhart Tolle, maybe in meditation or yoga, within a relationship, in the throes of an intense ayahuasca experience, or at the peak of a mountain. I realized it on the floor of a jail cell beneath a flickering fluorescent light.

 

 

In August 2016, I was arrested for blockading the construction of a fracked gas pipeline in West Roxbury, MA. This highly pressurized gas line was being laid less than 60 feet from a live blasting quarry. It passed in front of a nursing home, a preschool, and countless residential homes. Spectra Energy was funding the project. Despite the pleas of local leaders that the hundreds of gas leaks in our existing pipes be fixed, National Grid still contracted with Spectra for the fuel that this new 750 psi pipeline delivers.

I risked my clean record, my reputation, and my body to defend the environment, something that social norms had implicitly taught me was separate from myself. Climate change is an abstract idea; I was hardly aware of the facts as early as a year ago, and you may still not be conscious of it. Other places, however, are more than aware of the increasing intensity of the planet’s storms, droughts, floods, and temperature fluctuations.

Take, for example, the people of Karachi, Pakistan, whose local government dug mass graves in preparation for a reportedly 124 F heatwave, which killed thousands over several days. That happened. And it will continue to happen. I put my body in the way of construction to resist our continued reliance on this fuel source which disturbs the atmosphere, causing severe weather and endangering people (especially those in under-resourced areas), animals, plants, and the earth in general.

 

 

This was not, however, a selfless gift to the world at large; I still held the conviction that I was acting in my best interests when I climbed under a fence and through the woods to sneak into Spectra’s Metering and Regulating station and sat next to a steaming orange bulldozer.

Each of the protesters had been paired with a partner; I snapped a selfie of Pat and myself as the construction workers huffed and scoffed at us for holding up their work. In advance of this civil disobedience action, we had found out that our action would not affect the daily pay of the construction workers on the site. The police officers who had come to the construction site all summer to arrest new protesters are paid by Spectra and not the city, so that’s good, too.

A West Roxbury police officer rode up on a bicycle, dismounted, and approached us amicably. In the distance, we could hear the songs and chants of other protesters in the street opposite the construction area. The officer greeted us and asked if we knew we were trespassing.

“We know,” said Pat, who had a calm posture and tone. “We’re doing it for your grandchildren.” The officer chuckled and told us that, thankfully, he doesn’t call himself a grandfather quite yet.

The officer told us he understood the motivations of our action and was not opposed to our cause. I told him that it made sense for him to be sympathetic, as the police force is a protector of the people, and this pipeline poses a devastating and immediate risk.

“As I think you’re aware,” he smiled, “I will have to take you into police custody if you don’t leave the property.”

We politely informed him that we had no plans to leave the construction site, and he waved over a few other officers who handcuffed us (in plastic zip-ties) and walked us to the enclosed police van.

 

 

The other team of activists followed not far behind us, also zip-tied and police escorted. We loaded ourselves into the pitch-dark hole one by one and sweated profusely in the August heat for around a half hour until we rumbled off to the police precinct.

Two officers created a record of me and took my fingerprints. Staring at my ink-stained hands, I contemplated my actions from the cold concrete floor of my holding cell. At times, my resolve flickered and wavered; I thought about my job as a professor in Boston and the possible consequences of my employers finding out. I thought about my career as a therapist and the fact that I would have to explain to every future employer about why I have an arrest charge on my record. I thought about the possibility that my case could somehow become mixed up in the shuffle and I would be incarcerated for an extended period of time. I thought about all of the things people would think and say about me. Would my family be ashamed?

 

 

The self-preservation instinct is just as strong in me as ever. However, I know now that to act simply in service of my body and my record, my reputation and my possessions, i.e., all of these temporary, fleeting causes, is ultimately to act against myself.

That is when I realized that activism is psychedelic.

In the words of Dennis McKenna, psychedelics are nature’s defense against destruction. They may be catalysts that increase our ecological awareness and “wake us up.” Research shows that these compounds suppress activity of the default mode network, a system in the brain involved with many functions, including self-referencing and past and future thinking. With the nagging inner voice quieted, the mind is freed from the confines of habit and conditioning. Some report that this state facilitated a more objective look at their actions and the larger implications of them. This way of thinking is central to activism.

Activism is organized action that aims to bring about improvement or change in a society. This action may look like 600 Tufts University students lying in traffic to draw attention to the disproportionate number of police killings of people of color. It may be thousands of coal miners going on strike for better wages and working conditions. Activism may be a “kiss-in” protest in response to Russia’s new law making “the public expression of non-traditional sexual relations” illegal. Activism is over 100 tribes uniting in one of the largest indigenous resistance movements in history to stop the 1,100 mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which would run through sacred land and underneath the Missouri river, endangering over 8 million people’s access to clean water. Activism seeks to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, and/or environmental change or stasis.

Activism is psychedelic because it indicates a dissolution of ego. As I became activated to defend something bigger than my own immediate welfare, a shift took place—a shift toward seeing reality as a singular entity as opposed to a bunch of disjointed parts. I believe that this reality exists on the micro and macro levels, for myself as well as the world and the cosmos.

In my experience as a psychedelic person, working in activism and journeying in altered states of consciousness both showed me that I am not an independent entity. My existence is bi-directionally involved with the health and stasis of earth, humanity, and plant and animal systems.

I hope that my actions can inspire others to challenge the widely accepted madness. Fortunately, there are so many ways to care for the earth and every sentient being that inhabits it. Not everyone has to have an arrest on their record! That was just my path.

I hope that the consciousness of the world starts to shift to consider the universal effect of human norms, especially those that harm our bodies and our planet. I hope that people will engage in their own expression of the singularity; whether that means participating in civil disobedience, growing a garden, taking a heroic dose in silent darkness, starting a co-op with a time-based currency economy or belting out Om Namah Shivaya to your favorite Krishna Das CD.

That, my friends, is psychedelic.

Leia Friedman
Leia Friedman is a clinician, professor, and writer living in Lowell, MA. Her present focus in psychology involves the teachings of meditation, yoga, ecology, and the use of psychedelics to assist psychotherapy for clinical disorders. She is also involved in local social and climate justice activism, LGBTQIA+ concerns, and body positivity.