Psychedelic Confrontations

Hippocampal neurogenesis and the art of spiritual barter

Hippocampal neurogenesis and the art of spiritual barter

What the neuron is, what conduction is, what electrochemical excitation is, must be internalized and experienced firsthand: nothing serves better than psychedelic perturbation. The cascading serotonin overdose as caused by psilocybin, mescaline, and dimethyltryptamine will forcibly teach you that which you failed to learn otherwise: the real shape of neural experience. Its scintillating, seething, overdeterminate, functionally redundant quality: sometimes I stare into my deepcycle batteries when they're getting a full solar charge and watch the bubbles and listen to the rhythmic gurgling, and it occurs to me later that I'm looking at the simplest demonstrable model of electrochemical excitation. We are an organic battery, or rather a collective of billions of batteries with billions of relays, transducers, and catalyzers facilitating their cooperation to produce this brilliant quaking body.

What we see in psychedelia is the scaffolding, the skeletal framework of neural experience. The point of psychedelic practice is not its "otherworldly" quality, not transcendence nor escape for its own sake, but access to those subroutines which determine almost everything we do, everything we feel, everything we assume. To eat a handful of mushrooms, sit in the dark, staring at a fire and meditating, waves of memory and voice and emotional imprint washing over you, a dance of spirits as your amygdala takes a backseat to your hippocampus for once, as your default mode network is overwhelmed by a tidal wash of very different origin and means, is not to escape but to confront. The principal insight to be gained from the traditional approach - that which has served me so well in climbing past the limitations of psychoanalysis and western psychology in general - is to learn to talk to spirits. Wrapping your prejudices around this idea takes time, and so we translate it for the overeducated: narrative consciousness is not unitary, nor a locus of agentiality, nor the seat of motive. It is often no more than epiphenomena and distraction, but embedded in the uniquely human feedback loop between the auditory and speech centers - that which we call "thinking" - is the ability to encapsulate and barter with otherwise ephemeral forces of group dynamics and social stressors: I'm describing our uncanny ability to turn feelings into words, and words into ideas, and ideas into persons to whom we relate. That's what it means when a psychoanalyst "listens for unconscious valence", or your friend tells you to "get it out of your system", or you say you need to "get it off your chest": these are the ordinary means for ordinary human magic, the hallucinatory control all of us practice every day. It is no less amazing for being so commonplace: that's what your dog is saying to himself when he looks at you strangely for making that odd voice of mockery with your friends - "what incredible madness my humans bear, poor things".

To relearn the art of spiritual barter, which is to become more capable of that universal concern with a pantheon of spirits which characterized our common past in every culture of the world, is to exploit the more nefarious aspects of mercantile human nature for some of its best aspirations. Even the stupidest social workers know about the "emotional contract" in dealing with trauma and addiction: it's right in front of us, this ancient healing art. Much of the task for my students is undoing the heap of shame which smothers their imagination and unique spiritual solutions: the human condition is to be halfmad with creativity, and the only solution to profound neurotic entanglement is to talk about it - first with someone you trust, so that the witnessing undoes the social shame, and then gradually with yourself, so that you get used to the idea of spiritual quorum, and then eventually with the spirit itself - and we're at the masterly level of shamanic orientation, requiring many years of practice. Want to see it in action in a context you can tolerate? Listen to early James Brown: he was a master of calling and sustaining precisely the spirit he required - there was always just the right degree of mockery, self-deprecation and self-glorification, dismissal and invitation - since he had to simultaneously blow away the stink of depression and alcoholic gloom while summoning something fun, easy, sexy, immediate, and yet vitally important. What's more important than having a good time together on this planet earth? Than being fully alive while we can? His dismissal of his own limitations equals his receptivity to the energies of the room he was working: listen to comedians talk about their craft, and you'll hear the same language...

In other words, the great thing about psychedelic plants is not the cool shit you see, but the opportunity to conduct undone business. The freer state of hallucinatory association is just the lubricant, as much a consequence of the inhibition of dominant configuration as it is forcible excitation. So much of what seems unusual is just latent creative potential freed of the oppressive: we spend most of our dysfunctional lives squeezing a square peg into a round hole, hoping this time it'll be different. But until something changes at the unconscious symbolic level, we have no choice: the worst neurotics are the most potentially powerful people, and they're only obeying what the symbolic situation demands. Therefore it's not enough that we have a new feeling, we must also learn to hunt within the symbolic plane: that is, give shape to the shapeless, talk about the unspoken, and speak to the faceless.

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