It’s no accident that the words sacred and secret both come from older words that meant “set apart.” Throughout history, the true mystics in this world have often been outcasts, dwelling on the fringes of society, removed from what we would now call the mainstream. (Tip of the hat to writer/teacher Robert Forte for that insight.)
This is especially true where psychedelic mysticism is concerned. Thanks to the fourth-century Goths, the Spanish Inquisition, the Nixon administration and countless other party poopers, the use of entheogens for the direct experience of the divine has traditionally been a clandestine practice.
However, with psychedelics now being decriminalized and integrated into mainstream culture, the time is fast approaching when psychedelic people will no longer be set apart from the masses, and the taboo against these sacraments may become little more than a carryover from more puritanical times. (One of the definitions of taboo, by the way, is “separated or set apart as sacred; forbidden for general use.”)
Needless to say, it’s exciting to live in a time when substances that the mystics of old had to speak of in occult code are now openly discussed on Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, Netflix and late night talk shows. Even more importantly, the widespread use of consciousness-expanding medicines may help raise the level of ecological awareness, inclusiveness and kindness in this world.
But … will profiteering turn these sacraments into mere products? Will potential encounters with the very source of existence become just another trendy pastime? Is there room in the psychedelic world for $7,000 luxury psilocybin retreats, $600 Mike Tyson gravity infusers, 5-MeO-DMT vape pens and Johnson & Johnson ketamine-analog nasal sprays?
Learning from the Past
Liana Sananda Gillooly is the co-founder and board chair of North Star, a team of entheogenic advocates who are working to promote accountability and ethics in the emerging psychedelic industry. In her words, she hopes to avoid recreating “the systemic issues that are inherent in a capitalist system that is oriented to and motivated by the maximization of profit, and to engage with the international movement around constructing new business paradigms through building incredibly responsible, equitable, regenerative companies.”
One of North Star’s cornerstones is its Ethics Pledge, a commitment on the part of participants in the psychedelic medicine business to prioritize factors like equitability, knowledge of entheogenic tradition and awareness of the consequences of unethical behavior.
Gillooly’s inspiration for initiating North Star came from her prior work with the Arcview Group, an investment business servicing the cannabis industry. She says this experience opened her eyes to “how incredibly naïve we were. We really believed that we were building a new kind of industry, with industry leaders and funders that deeply cared about the mission, ending the drug war and the social justice issues around that and people who had a deep relationship with the plant. I watched that radically change overnight as soon as the profit motive became the dominant force.”
Commodifying the Divine
Gillooly feels that psychedelics can play an important part in mitigating the mass mental health crisis that is tied to our collective disconnection from meaning and purpose, as well as the present climate catastrophe. She sees the current psychedelic renaissance as “an extremely timely opportunity to help introduce tools that can radically shift consciousness and help awaken humans to the opportunity to strongly engage with the protection of life on Earth and see ourselves as part of the ecosystem of this planet.”
With psychedelics entering the commercial arena, Gillooly fears that “we will completely miss the opportunity to do those things: to have our worldview get shifted, to have humans show up to build the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible together. When you commodify a product, you cheapen it. Will experiences be as deeply insightful, impactful and meaningful if [entheogens] are available like candy?”
In Gillooly’s view, a key part of keeping visionary experiences sacred is holding “a real, authentic reverence for the profundity of ingesting God molecules into our being and perceiving the planes of divinity that become available in these experiences. If we lose reverence, if we lose that respect for what this is, if we think of it as just another Tuesday night thing that we do with our friends because we’re bored, we are at risk of creating yet another opioid for the masses, where people just see pretty colors and have cool, trippy visuals but don’t actually get the deep meaning that is available here.”
No, Really—It’s Medicine
Real as those dangers are, the absorption of psychedelics into the capitalist structure might be exactly what’s required to bring the paradigm shift that Gillooly envisions. For all the perils that the mass marketing of these medicines brings, it also opens up the possibility of more spiritual epiphanies—even unexpected ones.
We hear tales of police officers unintentionally going on vision quests after handling confiscated LSD. In a metaphorical sense, as big business gets its hands on entheogens, perhaps some of the medicine will soak in and create a shift in the consciousness of the business-controlled mainstream.
“I do believe that generally, most people who can do so safely are better off having these experiences than not,” Gillooly says. “I do believe that there is a net positive to having more people be introduced to these states. With that, I think that there’s another kind of danger of unskillful usage. It is incredibly important that we have extremely high quality public education and peer support trainings, as these are tools that can be extremely beneficial, but also harmful, and must be wielded with the utmost care.”
Groups like the Zendo Project and the Fireside Project are helping on the peer support front, while resources like this, this, this and this offer valuable information on the wisest and safest ways to use these substances. Various Indigenous communities are putting forth some useful educational materials as well. People who recognize the potential of entheogens as catalysts for spiritual breakthrough can also do their part by letting their peers know that these compounds are good for more than just giggles, or even for physical and mental health.
That said, the use of psychedelics for healing—or, for that matter, for laughter—isn’t truly separate from their use as conduits to divinity. Take, for example, the scene in the psilocybin episode of Netflix’s How to Change Your Mind, in which an interviewee weeps with joy as he explains how a single psilocybin therapy session cured him of the OCD that had hampered him since childhood.
“I’m several months out,” he notes. “My symptoms are zero. They do follow-up questionnaires, and I just don’t have OCD, clinically. So, I don’t know how to express a more radical transformation than that. I think I’ll always think of my life in terms of ‘before the psilocybin session’ and ‘after the psilocybin session.’”
With an emotion-drenched laugh, he adds, “It’s a beautiful world out there! I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s great! It really is wonderful.”
This is not trivial, nor is it an instance of psychedelics being demeaned by commercial interests. This is the use of psilocybin as a life-changing medicine.
If that’s not sacred, what is?
Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist, and teacher based in Santa Cruz, Calif. He has written for Revolver, Guitar World, Spirituality & Health, Classic Rock, High Times and other publications. Read more of his work at damonorion.com.
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