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Meet the Spirit Molecule

By Lindsay Jordan.

[Cover image: Yoko D Holbachie]

 David Luke and Rory Spowers, DMT Dialogues: Encounters with the Spirit Molecule (Inner Traditions Bear and Company, 2018)

In 2015 a small group of academics, experts and psychonauts gathered at an English country house for a four-day symposium on N,N-Dimethyltryptamine or ‘DMT’, the powerful psychedelic used in many cultures for ritual purposes including the Amazonian ayahuasca ceremony. When inhaled or injected, DMT brings about a short, intense trip with vivid hallucinations that are often perceived to be mystical and meaningful. As Andrew Gallimore explains (p. 201): ‘The reason we’re all interested in DMT is because it seems impossible, and yet the DMT world is undeniable; it cannot be denied once you’ve been there.’

Dialogues is the official account of the symposium. It comprises transcripts of the talks given by renowned academics in the field, along with the ensuing discussions around key theological and philosophical questions arising from DMT phenomenology. The book aims to illustrate the merging of science and spirit, enacting a paradigm shift where the explicable dwells in comfort with the inexplicable. Sacredness is often shrouded in secrecy but Dialogues, much like the monographs of its contributors, aims to shine a light on the objects under discussion (although they may remain veiled).

This book has come into being at a time when multiple scientific disciplines are converging on the idea that matter must be subordinate to consciousness, and the sentience of plants is coming to be accepted. The authors make a convincing case for shifting the focus of our scientific explorations from the expensive, barren lands of outer space to our rich inner terrain. This is not a retrograde move but one that uses modern technology to cast a new light on humanity – past, present, and future.

A distinctive feature of Dialogues, beyond its subject matter, is its easy interdisciplinarity. Erik Davis’ (Chapter 5) hope for an ‘ethics of articulation’ has been realized; individuals from different disciplines coming together, listening deeply, trying to understand the others’ perspectives and highlighting their blind spots. Graham St. John’s talk on the cultural background of the myths surrounding the pineal gland (Chapter 1), from Ancient Egypt through to Descartes and pop culture, moves organically through dialogue into cutting-edge science.

To speak of psychedelic experience is to respond to particular linguistic demands. Bridges need to be built between the languages of science, art and history, and some aspects of the experience may evade conceptualization altogether. It makes sense that those who enjoy going on psychedelic adventures and who find them intriguing and rewarding are also happy to listen to new perspectives and have their own view challenged. All of this requires a radically open mind. Dennis McKenna (Chapter 2) says of humility: ‘[it] is not a characteristic that you find often in scientists … psychedelics are partly the antidote to that; if you take psychedelics regularly they will remind you that you don’t know much’ (p. 55).

A good deal of the content of Dialogues centres on the entities that are commonly encountered under the influence; motifs that are shared between individuals and, to a varying and debated extent, across cultures. Common tropes include snakes, eyes, and little people resembling elves or aliens, sometimes engaged in fixing or operating machinery. This coincidence of experience has captured the collective imagination, and the authors suggest a range of possible theories from DMT being a messenger molecule from outer space, to an elaboration on the traditional theme of ‘plant teachers’. McKenna builds the proposition that psychedelic plants seek to inform us that we are not as wise as we think we are, and help us to develop the courage, curiosity, and imagination we need to change our behaviour and save the planet. McKenna attributes the soaring popularity of psychedelic plant medicines to the plants’ growing desperation. We only have a short amount of time left before the earth will become inhospitable towards life. Perhaps, McKenna imagines, DMT shows us the future extraterrestrials we must soon become.

There is a broad consensus between speakers on the capacities of plants to perceive, learn, remember and communicate. Jeremy Narby (Chapter 3) describes the Amazonian practice of ‘dieting’ a plant: abstaining from sex and certain foods, consuming an extract of the plant daily and seeing what information comes to you in your dreams – for example how it can be used for healing. Vastly different to Western methods of analysis, this practice has produced reliable knowledge that is difficult to falsify. Narby’s words resonate with Koestler’s ghost in the machine: ‘We don’t really know even just what makes a cell tick and how it really works. We can see some of the workings but it’s like there’s an invisible pianist – you know the keys that move are related to the music you hear, but who’s moving them?’ The nature of the ghost seems to be that is has no nature. Is it simply attention, or, as Peter Meyer suggests in Chapter 4, a ‘primordial awareness’?

Meyer presents Descartes’ basic error: that a body is of a completely different nature to a mind, and he argues that modern philosophy is only just recovering from this mistake. When philosophers ask what the relationship is between consciousness and neural activity, they are actually asking about the relationship between consciousness and an intellectual model, which is also part of their own consciousness. It is therefore an attempt to explain the whole in terms of a part of the whole, an enterprise recently satirized in The Onion as doomed to failure.

Clearly none of the contributors to DMT Dialogues are ready to hand in the towel. All are enthusiastic that despite the limitations and contradictions, there are lessons to be learned from psychedelic experience about consciousness, the world and the meaning of our existence. Have we learned anything new? Perhaps we are simply relearning old and forgotten ideas in new ways. Meyer suggests that DMT may teach us that the meaning of life is to acquire moral awareness and demonstrate this in our actions, also that goodness depends on the existence of evil. These echoes of Alan Watts’ ‘game of black of white’ are also resonant in Narby’s (Chapter 3) description of the daemon within oneself.

Erik Davis (Chapter 5) believes that psychedelics can galvanize a current of enchantment through our disenchanted, materialist world. They are themselves material molecules, and therefore provide a site of tension between science and the sacred: ‘[we] usually do not think of spirit in terms of molecules, and we really don’t think of molecules in terms of spirituality’ (p. 120). The experience always comes to an end, leaving us to decide how we respond. Do we say ‘that was weird’ and carry on as we were, devote ourselves to religion, or remain in epistemological limbo while we try to puzzle it out? Davis opts for the last, and outlines some of the problems, issues, and questions that arise when we try to compare religions with religions, psychedelics with religions, and psychedelics with psychedelics. He advocates celebrating aspects of our supposedly disenchanted worldview, holding onto our mental, rational edge, and balancing our desire for enchantment and connection with skeptical disenchantment. He also reminds us of the ‘core lesson of psychedelic practice’: set and setting. You take DMT in a lab, you encounter alien doctors with probes. Take it in a temple, you encounter God. Whether these encounters are our creations or not, as with our values and laws, we allow them their own ontological space. The entities are both there and not there. Davis presents this flickering reality that is bound up with our biological processes as a ‘metabolic ontology’ (p. 134).

There is a particularly interesting discussion following Davis’ talk about whether science is disenchanting and in what way, with Narby and Rick Strassman both defending the role of science in highlighting the awesome and mysterious. Davis and McKenna decide that much of modern science seeks not the pursuit of knowledge so much as the production of marketable goods; it is techno-science rather than the Wissenschaft of analysis and critique. In discussion with Rupert Sheldrake (Chapter 8), Bernard Carr speaks of a post-materialist movement among scientists who are calling for the concept of science to be expanded to accommodate these kinds of phenomena. He describes scientism as a ‘fundamentalist form of science that says the material world is all there is, consciousness is produced by the brain, and that’s it’ (p. 233). The scientific method is not at fault. Rather, it is the assumption that the material world is the only reality there is.

Some readers will wonder at the dearth of female experience represented here, the voice teacher Jill Purce being one exception, and I found myself ruminating over this. The appeal of first-hand psychedelic experience may not be universal but, viewed from the inside, it certainly doesn’t appear gendered. There is, perhaps, the human tendency to look to authority in the presence of uncertainty and mystery, and the evidence to suggest that we all, regardless of gender, tend to conflate masculinity with authority. I’ll continue to wonder at this, given that the psychedelic movement – if there is one – tends to present itself as radically anti-authoritarian. I could also throw in the cliché of the nerdy enthusiasm on display in Dialogues being inherently masculine: ‘let’s go to Anton’s house and talk about DMT’ as a variation on ‘let’s go to Anton’s house and play Dungeons and Dragons’. There are two further perspectives, specific to the subject at hand. Firstly, the field of psychedelic studies has been in a legally-imposed vegetative state throughout several decades of social change. The ‘luminaries’ of today’s psychedelic movement are naturally considered so by virtue of a longevity of experience that in many cases predates the current renaissance. It is also a risky business to speak openly about your own experience with drugs unless you are reliably self-employed or retired. Hence the inertia. Secondly, it could be argued that the higher authorities in this book are the ‘plant teachers’ and entities under discussion, who appear as a range of genders and archetypes. The speakers have played an important part in bringing these beings to our attention. In transcribing the talks and discussions, Nikki Wyrd has played a key role in the production of this book (as have the typesetters). Men have proffered the spunk and women the birthing push; situation normal. It’s often been said that psychedelics help us to feel more comfortable in our skins and to stop feeling like we have something to prove. I’ll just leave that there.

Like Self Reflected, Greg Dunn’s immense, shimmering microetching of the human brain, Dialogues has the potential to change your experience by changing the way you think about experience. I suspect the uninitiated will also find it fascinating. An initial response may be: ‘this sounds insane’, but a second might well be: ‘Where can I get some?’ In which case, check the Stockists list at the back.

(I’m joking. There isn’t one.)




Lindsay Jordan is a lecturer at the University of the Arts London and has written for the Guardian, the BBC and the Mail on Sunday. She is currently completing her doctoral thesis on the philosophy of higher education and has an academic interest in psychedelic experience.



First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 5th, 2018.