Author and Spiritualist Julian Vayne has recently released Getting Higher: The Manual of Psychedelic Ceremony (distributed by the wonderful professionals over at the Psychedelic Press) a guide to injecting entertainment and purpose into the entheogenic pursuits of casual users and experienced psychonauts.
The book aims to provide valuable supplemental information that can enhance the potency of psychedelic substances for inquiring minds. Julian (who has training in classical indigenous shamanism) explores a variety of methods and modes in which curious explorers can enrich their connection with themselves and the numinous.
By delving deeply into the existential reasons one may pursue these types of ceremonies, this release helps to demystify some of the nuances and underpinnings of transcendental travel.
For this interview, we discuss Getting Higher and what the psychedelic experience could mean on an metaphysical and existential level.
Prox: Tell us more about Getting Higher from a conceptual standpoint. Why did you feel compelled to write this book and how did you conduct research in preparation for it?
Julian: For many years I’ve been interested in many different aspects of the psychedelic experience; from altered states generated by practices such as breathwork, ritual drama, drumming and of course, psychedelic drugs. It was years before I combined my own occult, Pagan style practice with psychedelic substances - but once I’d done so I realized that these materials had tremendous opportunities to offer me both personally and our society as a whole. I learnt about and was able to take part in ceremonies with shamans and other practitioners, including folk from both emerging syncretic ayahuasca spiritualities through to people with lineages of sacred drug use that are thousands of years old. I’d also been doing my own experiments both alone and with others - developing rituals to hold and enhance the effects of modern magical molecules (such as ketamine, nitrous oxide and 25I-NBOMe etc).
I’d already written a book exploring various ways of understanding the psychoactive drugs in Pharmakon: drugs and the imagination but I wanted to create something that would distill my ideas into a handy ‘how to’ guide which would be ideal for people who are new to this territory. I’m also hopeful that more experienced psychonauts will find Getting Higher useful in that it may inspire them to develop their practice in new ways or reflect on what they do and why.
I wanted the book to be very accessible, so while this is drug use for people interested in ‘spiritual’ stuff it’s not necessary to believe in DMT aliens or anything else. While I suggest that a panpsychist or animist view of drugs and drug experience can be useful all you need to believe in to get something out of this book is the the amazing power of your own neurochemistry. The various methods to explore the psychedelic state presented in Getting Higher can be imagined as quasi-religious practices, philosophical investigations or simply fun games to play when you are high.
Prox: We seem to be hardwired for spiritual and metaphysical transcendence. Why do you think man would be programmed to seek out these kinds of experiences? What does this say about the nature of humanity in your opinion?
Julian: Especially as a deeply social species we are hardwired with strategies to recognize, relate to and interact with other intelligent entities - so it’s hardly surprising that we meet spirits when we are high on drugs (or indeed wandering around spooky houses). More broadly I think these experiences of self-transcendence and the numinous probably have a important individual and collective benefits, especially for animals with complex brains like ours. After the experience we do meaning making, for example expressing what we have seen in a psychedelic trip in writing or other arts. Making meaning is something that humans are born to do. The psychedelic experience both creates and destabilizes meaning - we see old stuff from new vantage points and new ideas burst through as the chemicals connect up bits of the brain that usually don’t talk to each other. Given the damaged and damaging nature of some aspects of human culture, I wonder if the psychedelic experience may not only heal us from our ills but may in fact be a necessity for our collective mental health.
Prox: Why does magick and the occult tend to mesh with the psychedelic experience so well? How have these communities found themselves often exploring the same disciplines?
Julian: Magick and occultism are bodies of technique that are interested in the imaginal realm. We have ritual practices that involve visualizing (imagining) things like pentagrams, magic circle and spirit beings. We use methods like trance work, site specific ritual (such as vigils) and other ways to actively engage with the imaginative capacity of humans. Magicians also tend to believe that ‘all things are connected’ or ‘as above, so below’, therefore chemicals that change our perception of the world (ie what we imagine is ‘out there’) and give us a sense that everything is linked to everything else (as our neurons link together and the boundaries of self and other break down) are naturally part of the magical story.
Over the last fifty or so years lots of great work has happened to make things like magic and Paganism socially acceptable. During this period, the use of drugs (which was fairly uncommon in explicitly ritual settings anyhow) was toned down. Groups such as the Pagan Federation made huge strides, to the extent that now if I say I’m a Pagan, hardly anyone bats an eyelid. A few groups with a more experimental approach to occultism continued to use drugs, particularly psychedelics, in their practice but this was and is, for obvious reasons, pretty underground.
Now I think we’re entering a time when those re-imagined Pagan traditions of say northwestern Europe are meeting the indigenous medicine traditions of the Americas and we’re seeing the hybridization of these different styles. Drugs aside in pretty much all styles of spiritual enquiry things like meditation and bodywork are common so there is certainly a shared core practice and often shared core values (eg try not to be dick to others, find your own way to the divine etc).
Prox: What are some misconceptions about shamanism and psychedelic exploration that you tend to encounter the most? How is it that this kind of mis/disinformation can still persist today?
Julian: I think many people are getting much clearer about the potential benefits of these substances, moreover people are beginning to see that ‘the medicine’ isn’t just the drugs it’s about the context in which they are used. A good ‘shamanic’ ritual forms the set and setting to optimize the substance(s) being used. In the past, mostly because of the legal situation, some shamanic practitioners wanted to distance themselves from the use of psychedelics, and while it’s true that not all styles of shamanism use drugs the fact is that many, many systems do. People also have information from their own peers and in the media about actors, computer designers and all the rest who have found tremendous benefits in everything from microdosing to visiting the jungle and drinking ayahuasca.
Sure there is still the argument about addiction but anyone who tries to use those arguments against the use of drugs, particularly psychedelics has to deal with two difficult facts: 1. Prohibition by any measure (eg number of drug deaths, availability of various substances or level of use) is a huge and brutal failure as a policy and 2. Addiction is primarily a function not of substance but of set and setting. People self-medicate with drugs to the point of damaging themselves and others because they are in distress. Check out the famous Rat Park experiment and the recent work by Dr. Carl Hart in this respect.
Prox: Ultimately, why should anyone consider participating in psychedelic ceremony of any kind? How can these practices provide enrichment to the user(s)?
Julian: People may come to the psychedelic experience for many reasons and often it’s a combination of things: they may simply be curious, they may wish to heal or transform something about themselves and may think that psychedelics may help us, they may be working on a specific problem or trying to shift a creative block. They may want the joy and ecstasy that psychedelics can provide to feed their soul and nurture their relationships with others, they may wish to use a ceremonial setting in order to increase the effects of the drugs and simultaneously create a safer and supportive environment for their trip.
The methods that I’ve shared in Getting Higher vary from full-on ceremonial rituals to little practices that someone could choose to deploy in order to have a mindful moment with the medicine perhaps if they are out clubbing. All these approaches are about helping to put ourselves into a good relationship with these marvelous substances and there are many ways to do this and many reasons we may wish to try.
Prox: Tell us something about yourself that we may not know that influences your work.
Julian: I’ve got two wonderful children and my older son (who is a teenager) sometimes talks to me about drugs. He once asked me how many different types of drugs there are and I said that there are broadly speaking three types; ones that speed you up, ones that slow you down and ones that make everything look weird. This simple, but I think accurate way of talking about these substances (or rather their effects, since some substances have all three effects depending on dosage etc) is used in Getting Higher. My son told me that he’d seen a government information film about LSD. I asked what he thought about it and he said “well if it was trying to put us off it was rubbish. It showed things all being sparkly and fractal!” I said “well yes it can be like that.” so he then asked why these things were illegal and after discussing the issue of addiction I explained how, under some circumstances LSD can be very scary. “Look at all the faces in the tree!” could be something we say as we marvel at the amusing dryads that the acid has revealed to us but the same observation, under less favourable conditions, could be really frightening. Again I’ve used that example in Getting Higher.
Prox: Who are some of your favorite artists, business people, creatives or intellectuals?
Julian: I’m a great fan of music so everything from Psychic TV through to Thomas Tallis, David Bowie to Akala. Music is the artform I engage with most often though I work in museums and art galleries and so often get the chance to be up close and personal with some very cool stuff - from the art of Richard Long to prints by William Blake.
Business people, I guess i’m interested in the way that some of our (probably psychedelically inspired) business folks are developing post-capitalist models of economic activity. Folks like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk and others who are less in the limelight but doing great stuff.
I’m also inspired by lots of the people involved in psychedelic research such as Amanda Fielding, Ben Sessa, Rick Doblin and those charismatic and beautiful outlaws like psychedelic chemists Nick Sand (Peace Be Upon him) and Casey Hardison.
Prox: Favorite Hobbies?
Julian: Walking and exploring, landscapes, cities, museums, libraries - like many folk I spend a fair bit of my life in front of a computer but there is nothing like the buzz, the fun and the intellectually stimulation of embodied cognition - discovering by doing, that’s what I love.
Prox: Tips for aspiring authors and psychonauts?
Julian: For authors, keep going! Get yourself a good editor (I have my lovely partner Nikki Wyrd who as well as being the editor of Psychedelic Press and various texts of the psychedelic renaissance is also wonderful for helping me forge my ideas in written form).
For psychonauts - take it easy. Forget the ‘heroic dose’ (at least for now) instead gradually introduce yourself to the spirit (ie drug) you are working with. Pace yourself - being a psychonaut is something you can do when you’re old so don’t rush, take your time, respect the medicine and enjoy!
Prox: Information on upcoming projects and releases?
Julian: I’m closely involved in Breaking Convention which is a wonderful biennial psychedelics conference. As well as speaking there I’ll also be curating the third pop-up exhibition by The Psychedelic Museum. We’re in the early stages of this project but I’d like to create more temporary and eventually permanent spaces where we can talk about the stories of the human engagement with psychedelic drugs. Sure we are in the crazy cultural blip of prohibition now but it’s important in my view to understand that these substances and experiences have always been part of being human (and like I said above may be something we actually need so we don’t go mad). Like Bob Marley says “If you know your history Then you would know where you coming from.”
I’m continuing to write on my blog and provide workshops and retreats for people who want to explore psychedelic states (using methods like breathwork, drumming, ritual drama etc) people can find out more at my Facebook page Deep Magic. I’ve also got another book which is a collection of essays coming out later this year called The Fool & the Mirror.
Prox: Final Thoughts?
Julian: I like to think that the bonkers political stuff in Britain and the USA is the last gasp of the old order. Like Nick Sand said: “freedom is not about being in chains, it’s about not having your mind enslaved”. We must fight for our cognitive liberty, for treatments which will actually heal people with psychological damage rather than just papering over the cracks. Our species is facing some grave challenges and I believe that psychedelically enhanced cognition may help us find ways out of our current predicament. So let’s make 2017 the third summer of love and do all we can to release the power of these marvelous medicines into our culture in ways that can benefit ourselves and all beings.
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