This episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with Dr Andy Letcher, a senior lecturer in ecology and spirituality at Schumacher College, whose background and research includes everything from Druidry and Neo-shamanism, to environmental activism and psychedelic spiritualities.
We talk about what it means to experience the world as alive, agentic and meaningfully interconnected, the nature of the permeable self and how to get there and the potential of psychedelics to reveal the world (and our place within it) in a new light.
Join in the conversation #hivepodcast
Dr Andy Letcher is a senior lecturer in ecology and spirituality at Schumacher College. A writer, performer and scholar of religion he began life as an ecologist, completing his D.Phil in Ecology at Oxford University.
After a spell as an environmental activist during the 90s, especially during the anti-roads protests, he moved to the humanities, completing a PhD in the Study of Religion at King Alfred’s College Winchester. He is an expert on contemporary alternative spiritualities, especially modern Paganism, neo-shamanism and psychedelic spiritualities.
A writer known for his critical approach, he is the author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom and a range of academic papers on subjects as diverse as fairies, animism, folklore, bardism and Druidry.
He wrote the companion volume to The English Magic Tarot. A folk musician, he plays English bagpipes and Dark Age lyre, and for ten years fronted psych-folk band, Telling the Bees.
NN: So Andy, thank you very much for joining me to have this conversation.
AL: Oh, thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
NN: So I’m going to kick off with a big question and ask with your experience and with your background and your current thoughts about the situation, where do you think we’re headed as a species?
AL: Well, let’s start with the big one. I suppose the question is, am I optimistic about the future? And not especially. I think the problems we face are so huge and they were really set in train 30 years ago. So the climate emergency is happening because of what we were doing 30 years ago and it’s happening. So I’m not quite sure where it’s going to end up. My hope is that we will steer it away from a hothouse earth, which would just be the end of civilization. But it seems to me 50/50, whether we pull it off. And I’m now a parent, I have three young children. I was blessed with twins, I wasn’t planning on having three. And obviously I’m worried about what the future is going to look like for them. At the same time, I do sort of hold out hope. We’re such an extraordinary species and we’re so capable of amazing things that something of that will prevail. But yeah, I think there’s a shadow on the horizon and I think it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
NN: I wonder with this idea of civilization, when you talk about that, what do you conceive of that as being? So if there’s going to be a big change, what might human society look like? What might … yeah. Yeah. I don’t even know how to phrase that. It’s such a big question.
AL: Well, I mean, on the one hand, if we really get our act together, then we can carry on living in cities with a reasonably comfortable standard of living and technology and what have you. But if we don’t get our act together, I mean, God only knows. I mean, choose the apocalyptic scenario with your favorite scifi movie. We could be hunter gatherers, we could be living in very small scale societies, who knows, who knows?
NN: And do you think that we would be able to adapt, in some ways I want to say backwards as in backwards through time. So pre agricultural era, it seems a little bit far back. But if we’re talking about things like small communities and micro grids of food production and electricity, et cetera, do you think that people would be able to adapt quite readily to that sort of change?
AL: Well, I think it depends on the people actually. And everyone’s different. I’m always reminded of an image from the tsunami in east Asia, was it in Christmas 2000? And that when video footage started to emerge from that, there was a shot of these people and they had handfuls of shopping and they were walking to their cars in the car park and you saw the water just rushing towards them and they were frozen to the spot. And I’m sure they didn’t make it. And you’re screaming at the screen going, “For God’s sake, just run, run.” Well, they clearly weren’t adaptable. And God knows that might be me frozen like a rabbit in the headlights. But I mean, maybe this brings us onto the topic where we’re going to move on to psychedelics.
AL: I think one of the things psychedelics do is they help us to appreciate novelty both on a cognitive level, and on a cultural level and even a societal level. They allow us to open ourselves to new ideas and new possibilities. And I think that quality is going to be essential for whatever comes. It’s the people who are willing to go, “Okay, we can’t live like the way we have been. Let’s adapt.” They’re the ones who can make it through. I don’t know if you can teach that. I mean, I live and work at a college where we assume you can, but maybe it comes down to personality.
NN: But it’s interesting because touching on the psychedelic aspect of the research that’s being done at the moment, I remember reading quite a few years ago now that people who have psychedelic experiences, even if it’s just one, will often score higher for the trait of openness, personality traits of openness to newness to novelty up to even, I think it was, they did the test six months, a year, and even 18 months after a single psilocybin dose. And so I wonder if that’s something that could actually create a greater resilience in people who perhaps are not naturally high scoring in openness. And whether people would be open enough to take that step.
AL: Right. I mean, I think you’re right. And I think maybe one of the most problematic aspects of humanity is this tendency, particularly as we get older to become less open. Less open to novelty and change and I’m starting to notice it in myself. I’m in my fifties now and my body is just starting to stiffen up and my mind definitely. And that tendency as we get older, I’m sure lies at the root of many of the problems we face. And if the science, coming out right now about what psychedelics do to the brain is correct, what it seems to be saying is that psychedelics put our brains literally in a state they were in when we were in infancy. And as I mentioned, I have young children and they’re so open and can play with anything and anything can become a game.
A cardboard box can become a boat on the ocean or a spaceship or a cave or you name it, they can do it. But we lose that ability and no, it’s a cardboard box and you can’t put it on the kitchen table because it’s a cardboard box. It belongs in the waste. We become closed and we lose that ability. So if psychedelics genuinely do that and it looks like from the science that they do, and certainly that’s what the hippies had been saying for 40, 50 years, then I think they have a huge role in helping us through the crisis of climate collapse and all the concomitant social problems.
NN: It’s interesting because I found that in the last, actually in the last year there’s been a lot more mainstream coverage of psychedelic experience. This has been a growing theme. But for instance, a hugely popular book by Michael Pollan called How To Change Your Mind and Paul Stamets’ work. He’s a famous mycologist in the States who’s just released this fantastic film called Fantastic Fungi. And it looks not only at the psychedelic aspect of certain types of mushrooms, but also how the mushroom family can be used to help regenerate and stave off some of the worst impacts of pollution for instance. But I think there seems to be a readiness in people to speak about and hear about the possibility of working with plant allies, if you want to call it that, and that maybe we’d lost for a while because I think it’s sort of seems to come in cycles perhaps.
AL: Yes. I mean obviously, there was a sort of regressive moment in the mid sixties and early seventies where up to that point they’d been loads of scientific research. I mean, just thousands of papers written about LSD and psilocybin and then that all stopped. And psychedelia didn’t go away, but it was always underground and it was part of hippie culture and then rave culture. And what this new, it’s not really a psychedelic renaissance, it’s a renaissance in psychedelic research. What that’s done is give a legitimacy to psychedelics again. And people who would otherwise have walked away from psychedelics and now going, “Oh, hold on a minute, the scientists are saying they’re okay.” And a lot of the myths that the media put around about psychedelics, make you mad or make you ill or damage your chromosomes or all this kind of nonsense have been dispelled.
That’s not to say there aren’t risks involved with psychedelics. And particularly if you suffer from any kind of mental health issues, not a good thing to do outside of a controlled environment. But a lot of those myths have now been dispelled and it’s given people permission to talk about the subject and to experiment. And I think one of the interesting things is now the baby boomers are just starting to talk about it because they went quiet. And I’m a great advocate for psychedelic eldership, that we need our elders. We need people to tell us what they did, what they did wrong, what they got right, what they’ve learned, how it’s changed their lives, how it’s affected their creativity and their working lives and their relationships and their mental health. We need to know this stuff and we need the baby boomers to come out. So I’m glad they are.
NN: I think also because I’ve had, well without going into too much detail I guess because I want to protect their privacy, but I’ve had various conversations in the last 15 years with family members about these sorts of topics. And I’ve found that in the last 15 years, I’ve come up against a lot of resistance or curiosity, but from a distance and it seems that now there is a more of a willingness to kind of have a discussion about it. And I think exactly as you say it is because one’s able to point to the research and say, “Well, if Imperial is doing this, if there are people at [inaudible 00:11:48] college in Winchester doing this.” There’s this, you can point towards who as you say, are “respectable” who are doing legitimate research in these areas.
But I wonder from your perspective in your work, looking into things like diverse subjects such as fairies and animism and folklore and borders of [inaudible 00:12:11], what aspects do those more sometimes private practices, what aspects that they bring into the conversation? So outside of the scientific research, what role do they have to play in this new chapter?
AL: Right. Great question. So because of what happened in the 60s, the scientific research now has to be whiter than white, absolutely impeccable, utterly objective. Not at all interested in the subjective experience of taking psychedelics, other than to see what benefit they might have for treating depression or obsessive compulsive disorder or anorexia or any of these kinds of things. And of course, for most people who are taking psychedelics, who are doing it, not because they’re ill, but because they want to enhance life in some way, that would be to miss the point entirely. The point is what they do to your experience. And of course, some of the experiences that people have are deeply challenging, if not threatening to the predominant materialist view of the world that we have in the West.
So people have experiences of the divine, of other than human beings, plant spirits, mushroom spirits, deities who talk to them. And we thought we’d consigned all that stuff to the dustbin of history. Certainly if Richard Dawkins is to be believed, religion is just a sort of aberration of evolution and yet people are taking these substances and having extraordinary experiences, which are profoundly meaningful and therefore they cannot be dismissed because they are affecting people’s lives. I mean, let’s just take one example that I was talking about at Breaking Convention, which is this whole question of nature connectedness. It’s something of a kind of hip phrase at the moment. You speak to people no matter what their background or where they’re from, who’ve taken mushrooms, who’ve taken psilocybin, and the story you hear about time and time again is, yeah, you need to take them in nature or they opened my eyes to the natural world or they’re like a Bable fish to the vegetable kingdom.
Or I beheld a tree, I had a conversation with my pot plant. These stories go on and on and on and we have to take them seriously. And we have to judge people by how they then behave in the world. And it does seem that these kinds of experiences are leading people to lead more ecologically inclined lives. So I understand why science does it and why it has to do it. I suppose I take a more anthropological interest, which is that we have to take people’s experiences seriously and that deserves academic scrutiny in its own right.
NN: It’s interesting that you mentioned Richard Dawkins, because I know he has a new book that’s just come out. And I was listening to an interview that he gave very recently, I think with Joe Rogan on his podcast. And Joe Rogan asks him the question. He says, “Well, someone in your position who’s intellectually curious and you say that you’re rigorous, have you actually experienced a psychedelic setting? Or have you experienced taking mushrooms, psychedelic mushrooms?” And he said, “No.” And I thought, isn’t that interesting that someone who actually has had a big impact in my life, someone who has explored the religions of the world, has not had a direct experience of one of the most primary generators of transcendent experience that people time and again have taken counter, have recounted to their friends, to family, et cetera. Is extraordinary that he wouldn’t want to experience something like that firsthand to then be able to dismiss out of hand or engage with perhaps more generatively the topics that arise when people have these experiences. I mean, that’s kind of just fascinating to me.
AL: Right. And there’s a very famous video of Richard Dawkins on the BBC show Horizon, it must be about 15, 20 years old now, where someone tries to induce a mystical experience in him by stimulating his temporal lobes with magnetic fields.
NN: Oh yes, the God Helmet.
AL: And yeah, the God Helmet. You’ve seen it. So I mean, it’s obviously not a double blind experiment and it’s very obvious that he’s resolutely determined not to have any kind of mystical experience. I mean, yes, I mean, one can speculate as to what it is about his personality that is so resistant to the idea. But I mean, it’s to speculation. He’s a fabulous biologist I’ll say that. He’s a lousy scholar [crosstalk 00:17:53].
NN: I mean he has fascinating ideas, I just wish like, I don’t know. I kind of think if you’re going to diss the party, you have to show up to the party to be able to diss it properly, otherwise don’t diss it so much.
AL: Well, right. And I mean this was the viewpoint of the very early scientific researchers in the 1950s and sixties, which was the, you had to have experienced this firsthand, otherwise you really couldn’t comment. And there’s a very famous apocryphal quote attributed to Timothy Larry, which I’m sure he never said, but it’s a great quote anyway, which is that, “LSD causes paranoia amongst people who’ve never taken in.”
NN: So I kind of want to ask you where you want to go next with this, because I have so many questions that I’d like to ask you, but I wonder what you’d like to explore right now.
AL: Well maybe I could tell you a little bit about some of the research I’m doing at the moment.
NN: Yes please.
AL: So one of my questions, my research questions is about this whole notion that psychedelics are in fact ecodelic. That what they do is they give people a profound sense of connectivity with nature. The technical term for this, are you ready for this, is an extrovertive mystical experience. I’ll say that again. An extrovertive mystical experience.
AL: And as I said earlier, the anecdotal evidence is stacking up, but it’s anecdotal evidence. And in the study of religion, one of the great founders of the discipline was an American psychologist called William James. And William James is famous in psychedelic circles because he wrote about mystical experience and the question of whether drugs could occasion mystical experiences. But he was also quite a skeptic and he says, “Just because you’ve had a mystical experience, it’s indubitably true for you, but I’m under no obligation whatsoever to believe you.” And that I think is a great challenge because lots of people are saying, “Yeah, man, if we all just took magic mushrooms and beheld nature, then the world would be okay.” And that’s a very beguiling thought. But how do we answer William James?
AL: And my kind of attempt to answer him has been to question how we view the self. And I mean, I’ll try and be brief. But in Western culture we tend to have an idea of the self as atomistic as rather like a billiard ball. It’s the brute idea behind the whole idea of the economic person. We are rational individuals. We go and make rational choices in our purchases. There is the singular may or I within this self, and it has a sort of hard boundary and we all kind of bounce around like billiard balls. And then the problem is if that’s what we’re like, where does society come from? And I’m always reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s famous saying that, “There’s no such thing as society.” She could only say that because of this view of the self that all that matters is the self bouncing around like a billiard ball, making rational choices.
And that’s the idea of the self that we’ve inherited. But there are other ideas of the self. And I’m not going to rattle through all of them for you now. But in indigenous cultures, the self is not necessarily a singular thing, nor does it necessarily have a hard, impermeable boundary. We have multiple selves. We have pervious selves and the other things that might be inside me are my ancestors spirits, deities, the landscape. Now this starts to sound a little bit weird to Western ears, but I mean, just think, well then this becomes particularly apparent when you do become a parent and you start rebuking your children with exactly the phrases that your parents used when you were a child that you’d completely forgotten about.
And so in some sense, your parents are already inside you. And so the indigenous model I think isn’t quite as weird as it first sounds. Or someone makes a very hurtful comment to you when you were a child at school, a teachers say, that stays with you. It’s in you. It’s part of you. It’s residing within you. And the other key idea of this indigenous model is that you have to keep working at making yourself pervious that the self kind of closes itself off like a sort of tortoise developing a kind of carapace about itself. And so the reason why you do ritual, why you do vigil, why you do fasting, why you do all those kinds of ritual austerities all night dancing, dancing till you drop.
The reason why you do that is to maintain the perviousness of the self because everything is about community. Well in that model, it’s really not surprising that there’s connectivity with the other than human because the whole worldview is premised on that. So I think there are views of the self that would allow psychedelics to open us up profoundly to a nature connection. And what they do is they make us pervious. They reduce this sort of carapace we build around ourselves. And a profoundly anti-Thatcherite, I never thought I’d say that. They’re profoundly anti-Thatcherite. They get rid of this sense of the atomistic individual. They open us up to the possibility of living in community with the different aspects of myself, but with other people and with the other than human. And that if that is true, I think he’s profoundly timely.
NN: I’m also reminded of the fact as you’re talking about permeability and connection, some of the biggest challenges that the Western world are facing around issues with depression, isolation, suicide, opioid crises. I think these things, one can see a through line where if people are feeling less connected and less supported, it’s very easy for us to get unwell and to suffer. And I wonder if, sort of to inject a bit of levity into this in some way, but in other ways it’s quite serious, I guess.
I wonder if trends such as the Marie Kondo method of clearing out loads of stuff and your house, decluttering and then organizing and cherishing that which you have, I wonder if these sorts of more public trends are reflecting a deeper desire for something richer but with less stuff and maybe just a sense of being in greater presence with what’s there with our loved ones, with our dwelling places, with yeah, the ground beneath our feet in some instances. I know that that’s an interesting trend that’s happening with storytelling and a return to folktales. That these are stories that reconnect us with place. I wonder what your experience and your research is around that, about there being a potential trend towards looking at these different forms of reconnection.
AL: Well, yes. I mean, I completely agree with what you just said. I mean, I think I’ll come on to your question about storytelling in just a moment. But I think late capitalism has come to function like a non-theistic religion and it’s just keep buying stuff and you’ll feel okay. And we know that the brain’s reward systems give us that dopamine here when we hit the buy now button and then the thing arrives and it lasts for all of the day and then we need another hit. And I would say that going along with the ecological crisis is a huge crisis of meaning that somewhere people know that capitalism is not answering that need for meaning, that need for belonging. I mean, in a sense, I think capitalism, this is a bigger debate, but I’m going to gloss over it if I may.
But I think capitalism emerged from Christianity and I think somewhere Christianity, its popularity was that it gave this answer to our human condition, our mortality. Don’t worry, as long as you’re good, as long as you’re moral, you’ll have eternal life. And I really don’t think people buy that. I’m not trying to be disrespectful to practicing or believing Christians. That’s fine. But I think many people for whom Christianity no longer plays a part in their life, they don’t buy that, but neither has capitalism answered it. And then if you have some kind of crisis, you get ill, you get burnt out of work, you suffer a bereavement, you’re in an accident, a partner leaves you, any of these kinds of things, throws you into some kind of crisis and you realize that the capitalist story isn’t counting it.
You fall through the cracks. And so, yes, I think there is this profound hunger for meaning. Now it’s fine if people find it in Orthodox religion. And please don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to criticize mainstream religion at all. But for those for whom those worldviews no longer have any meaning or relevance, what’s left? So you mentioned the revival of storytelling and yeah, I think absolutely. People are looking for something that can connect them to place to where they are and the community in which they live. I mean, many of us, I’m really bizarre in that I now live five miles from where I was born and grew up. I mean, I couldn’t wait to get away when I was a kid, but I’ve ended up at home and that’s really weird.
Most of us live far from where we grew up mostly in urban environments where we probably don’t even know our neighbors. And we assemble these kinds of virtual communities through the yoga class we go to or work colleagues or people who share similar interests. And we’re desperate for something that will link us to place. And I think that that search for storytelling, festivals, the whole kind of hipster romanticization of moving back to the country and idyllic childhoods and all those kind of folksy adverts we have at the moment where the ukulele soundtracks are all symptoms of this hunger for the reconnection to place and to community that capitalism, late capitalism particularly has just severed.
NN: It’s curious because you’re saying that. I’m getting this, I suddenly have this image in my mind of someone dressing themselves up, creating a life made of the scraps of what they imagine that connection to look like. So buying the house in the country or playing the ukulele like you just said. And I find that when I search for the moments at which I felt most connected or enriched or alive, often it’s a very internal experience without external trappings that will usually involve dancing or playing music or being with loved ones or whatever it might be. But these are the sort of, these are experiences that are generally interconnected with others or if they’re not, it’s connected with sound or movement or story or rich imagination. And I wonder if there’s something in that, that we kind of we so easily turn to an outside source for an inside change.
And that maybe that’s also the role of capitalism to say, “Well, okay, you’re not feeling great. Open your app. You’re not feeling great, buy more shit, but you don’t need,” as opposed to just going, you’re not feeling great, reach out a hand. I know I’m simplifying to make a point, but I think there’s something in that. That maybe the hard stuff is turning inwards because there’s so much that’s been ignored that we’d have to clamber over a hack a lot of stuff and probably through quite a lot of it to find the plug to connect ourselves back in.
AL: I think you’re so right. And I think the nature of urban living, I was talking about pervious notice of the self. I think the nature of urban living particularly in the big metropolises, you can’t survive unless you have your armor and act as though you’re a billiard ball. It’s intolerable. I mean, just traveling on the tube is insanity. And people do this every day. They have to do it every day. But if you take one step back, it’s insanity that you’re stuffed into this tube underground with your head in someone’s armpit desperately trying not to make eye contact with them in case they perceive it as some kind of unwelcome threat.
And I mean it’s just monstrous. And because of that I think you’re right. It is hard sometimes to find those moments of connection. But I would say that, why are festivals so popular? Why does everybody want to go to festivals in the summer? Precisely for that. For that festival feeling, for that feeling of belonging, that feeling of what anthropologists would call communitas. That effervescent feeling of belonging, of being in a crowd amongst similar people, sharing moments around the fire as you say through dance, through music. There’s sort of a safety valves, I think really. What they haven’t translated into is the tearing down of capitalism. But maybe that will come.
NN: As you’re saying about the festivals, it’s ironic that we’re actually paying for these experiences and that that’s something which at its most rich form is inherently participatory. So things like singing. I remember when I was very young, so I’m also a musician. I know you’re also a musician. When I was very young, I had friends, one friend in particular in primary school who was told that she couldn’t sing and I never really bought into it. It was a lie. And one of the teachers spent about a year and a half taking her through different songs, different techniques. And she, by the end of it, she could sing.
And when I say sing, I mean, conventionally sing in tune and hold a melody in a group of people. And I think we forget when we pay for these experiences that actually these were meant to be things that we did together, that we created together. It wasn’t necessarily a musician over there and everyone else sits and listens. Of course there’s going to be people who are maestros and virtuosic on the violin or whatever. But people could tap a foot or clap or hand or hum along. And I think, we’re almost discouraged to partake in that way in many societies now.
AL: Yeah, I agree. And music is one of those fundamental things that make us human. And you go to an indigenous African context and everybody sings. There is no music making without everyone. And you’re right. Some people are particularly gifted, but it’s something you do together and there’s no question that you wouldn’t sing or dance. And just as there’s all this research being done on the potential benefits of psychedelics, there’s just a ton of research about the therapeutic effects of music making and what music making does to the brain, which is why music and psychedelics have always traditionally gone together. And I’m thinking particularly of West Africa and the Bwiti religion in Gabon where they have some of the most rhythmically complex music on earth, which is designed to express and at the same time contour and shape the experience of taking iboga, which is this root bark, which is the mainstay of their religion. But you can’t separate the iboga from the religion, from the music. They’re entangled.
And so, yeah. I mean we were talking, you asked ages ago actually about the type of experiences that people are having outside of the clinic or outside of the laboratory. And here’s where I think something interesting is happening that I think people are now trying to start to find ritual or ritual-like or ceremonial contexts for taking, say, magic mushrooms. A lot of this has come from people traveling to the Americas and taking part in ayahuasca ceremonies or payoti ceremonies or San Pedro ceremonies. But people are now starting to come home and go, “Well, we can’t keep jetting off to the Amazon. What would an indigenous mushroom ceremony look like? What would the music be like that contours it and expresses it and give shape to it?” And these are fascinating questions.
NN: It’s interesting because when we talk about ritual context for the taking of psychedelic plants and the experiencing of these, I guess these moments of connectedness or dissolution of self, any of these experiences, we often look to other indigenous traditions who have some kind of lineages, some kind of lineage that remains unbroken. And yet we forget that in our own backyard, we have great long lineages of our own indigenous traditions that yes, may have been caught by the invasions of the Romans and then Christian and Abrahamic religions taking roots and displacing many of the more earth-based practices.
But if we go far enough back and we don’t have to go that far, you find the threads of these old stories still woven and alive in places today. And I wonder what your thoughts are about tapping into these rituals that belong to all of humanity. That somehow there is a thread that we can pull on, no matter how diverse our backgrounds. So for instance, my family comes from all sorts of continents, no matter how diverse and how maybe disconnected to place or to a lineage we may feel, there is a connection that we each share with some form of ecological connectedness and narrative that connects us back in. That was quite a long sentence. I’m not sure if I’m being clear enough.
AL: No, you’re making sense. I mean, so one of my longterm personal interests is in paganism. I call myself a pagan and I’ve been searching for exactly that. You know, what are the threads, what are the traces, what are the shards, the remnants of ancient ritual and practice. And sadly they’re very hard to find. And as I’ve got older, I’ve started to think it doesn’t matter in that it’s easy to think that authenticity lies somewhere else. It lies in the Amazon. It lies in the distant past, in the iron age or in the neolithic or anywhere but here. And what humans have always done is make stuff up. And if you get it right, you make something up and you get it right and you do it again the same time next year or the same time next month or whenever it is, and it still feels right, before you know it, you’ve got a tradition.
And I’m so sympathetic to that hunger for authenticity in the past. And I play English bagpipes that were wiped out in the reformation and I play dark age lyre, which disappeared in about 700 AD. I play these instruments. So no one really knows how they sounded and I have this desperate hunger to connect to something ancient and yet it probably doesn’t matter. So we can devise our own rituals and that might mean going to Glastonbury and taking LSD for three days perhaps. It might mean gathering at the summer solstice on a hilltop, round a fire with your friends and playing music and staying up all night and watching the sunrise. And that’s enough. You don’t need a guy with a funny hat and a rattle. So that can help too. We can be creative here and we can make our own rituals.
It may be that the psychiatric clinic is the new ritual space. You know, the psychiatrists are our new shamans. And when you look at the research that’s being done at Imperial about treating people for depression, they turn a bog standard, horrendous, hospital bedroom into this beautiful psychedelic cave of wonders with an extraordinary soundtrack. And they lower people. They take people on a psychedelic journey. Maybe that’s something of a new ritual. I would hate to be prescriptive. I’m really intrigued to see what our new rituals are. So for example, look at the rave which emerged in the late 1980s and has remarkable longevity. It hasn’t really changed. You know, you’ve got a DJ, you’ve got music, you’ve got lots of beautiful décor, people dress in a very particular way. You take particular drugs, you don’t take other drugs. That’s a kind of ritual that’s emerged. It works. It functions for a lot of people.
I’m not sure it’s so great for mushrooms, but what would a mushroom ceremony look like? People are starting to experiment and to explore and I think something new can evoke the spirit of the old without being hidebound to the past or hidebound to tradition. Because there’s a lot about tradition that we don’t want to keep. There’s a lot of aspects of human culture that have a vulnerable history like rape, genocide, homophobia, empire, all these things go way back. We don’t need them. So it’s great if you can find something that’s old, but will support and hold you and provide that container. At the same time, we don’t necessarily need it. And I think it does come down to what you were saying about connection, open heartedness, reaching out a hand to people. Maybe that’s enough.
NN: Oh, that’s very inspiring. I love this idea of there’s something, a phrase in particular that you used where you said that kind of what we’re looking for is anywhere but here and this sense that … Because I’m totally guilty of this, reading old books about different forms of ritual through different lineages throughout the ages, whether it’s Zoroastrianism or whatever it might be. But someone had to make this shit up at some point. Like someone said, “Okay, let’s try this. Let’s light a fire. Rattle something that makes sound and move around and see what happens.” And it’s maybe that’s the thing that is worth keeping. It’s a spirit of experimentation and play.
You mentioned earlier about your children being open. Maybe that’s the thing that is the timeless thing that all of humanity, and I would probably also say probably most if not all species have in common, is this ability to explore something new. And maybe that’s the thing that is the thread that needs to be pulled upon in order to discover how to make the most of this and in this present day and age. And I wonder with, so there’s a wonderful word that you offered in the talk that you gave and I’m sure you probably offered it before, but that was the first time I encountered it. Which is animaphany or I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly. How would you pronounce it?
AL: I would say animaphany. It’s a really tortured new word because classical scholars will see that I’ve hammered together Latin and Greek. I’m so sorry.
AL: It was a play on the idea of hierophany, which is a concept within the study of religion and that means a manifestation of the sacred. And what I mean by animaphany is that one of the experiences that people report, particularly on mushrooms and ayahuasca and iboga is this manifestation of spirits. Now that might be plant spirits. And that seems to happen particularly on ayahuasca that plants seem to appear often in human guise and in indigenous cosmovision, they are recognizable. So there will be consensual agreement that if a woman turns up, a young woman with black hair and she’s holding a stem of a plant cut in a certain way, then that means it’s black datura or whatever.
So there seems to be some kind of agreement that these are genuine plants spirits. We’re getting into territory that might be hard for Westerners to a credit. But so there’s a manifestation of the spirit. But I also mean it isn’t like a new understanding of a term, again from the study of religion called animism. The old Victorian understanding of animism was that indigenous people just kind of made a well intentioned mistake and they misattribute aliveness or insaltiness to things that to the Western mind are probably not alive like trees and rocks and mountains and rivers, landscapes, caves, springs, these kinds of things to the Western mind it’s very obvious that’s not alive. We make a very clear distinction between aliveness and not aliveness. That was the old idea of animism.
There’s a new idea of animism that comes through the work of American anthropologist called Irving Halliwell who was working in the 1950s, amongst the Ojibwe nation, in North America in Turtle Island. And they had this concept of other than human persons by which they mean the world is full of people, only some of whom are human. So there may be rock people and tree people and mountain people and river people, which is not to say that they are human people in rock form. No, a rock person behaves as a rock person should, i.e. like a rock. The difference is that it means you live in a world of relationships where suddenly now there are correct ways to interact with all these different people with whom you happen to coexist. It goes back to this idea of perviousness again and the idea of the self being multiple.
And so when I coined the phrase or the term animaphany, I meant it in that sense that people often see the aliveness of the world and that it does have personhood. And people report that certain rocks, for example, seem to be alive or conscious in some way or seem to have some kind of personhood, seem to be demanding some rockish way of interacting with them. Now as I mentioned earlier, the current scientific research isn’t particularly interested in this. It would describe it as being, well, that’s psychologically true or they might use the word magical thinking, which is a beautiful way of consigning it to a kind of ontological bin where you don’t have to think about it anymore.
But I think that’s one of the most interesting things about psychedelics is we’ve moved away from this language of psychology, which was predominant in the 60s. Ego expansion or ego loss or mind expansion or expanding consciousness, all these kinds of psychological terms. And now people are starting to talk about relationship with spirits, relationship with trees and plants and rocks and rivers. And that I felt deserved a new word and animaphany, a manifestation of spirits.
NN: That’s a really lovely way to point towards it. And I wonder, before I ask you the final question, I wonder what role you think this might play in how we deal with the difficulties of the kind of breakdown and the degradation of nature, this reframing of our experiences to encompass more than just ego dissolution, for example, or this desire to be more connected or sense of wanting to have a greater sense of connection with the web of life of which you form a part.
AL: Well, I think in the eighties and nineties, people were encouraging us to connect with Gaia, with the planet, with the globe. And I think that’s too much for a human mind to take in. I don’t think we can … it’s one of the problems with climate breakdown is it’s so huge, it’s beyond us. And therefore I think one way forward is to foster, as you were suggesting earlier with your talking about folktales, is to foster intimate connection with place, with where you are, with your locality. And that really doesn’t matter where you are. You can be right in the middle of London or Berlin or New York and you can still foster a connection with place. You can spot the moss and the lykin and the birds that live there. You can create a relationship with them and once you have an animistic relationship in that you start treating them as other than human people or people with whom you share the world, then you start to care about them.
And there are numerous studies that show when people are invested in the world about them, when they care, they won’t let people just chop down a tree. They’ll go and squat in the tree and stop cutting it down. Because in some sense it’s become meaningful, in some sense it’s become sacred. So I mean, I’m incredibly privileged where I live down here at Schumacher College in Dartington in Devin. There’s a 1500 year old Yew tree at the top of the hill and it has this palpable presence. And I can go and just sit with this ancient being that’s enormous and it dwarfs me both in stature and in longevity. I mean, I can’t even conceive of what it would be like to live for 100 years, let alone 1500 years.
But I know that if anyone was going to take an ax to it, I have this relationship with that tree and I would stop them. Now if we can … you don’t need a 1500 year old Yew tree. You can it with whatever is in your locality. If you can open your eyes to what’s there, to the pigeons, to the magpies, the rooks, the rats even, these other creatures, these other beings that we’re sharing our world with. If we can foster a relationship of care, then I think that will help steer us through because then we’re invested and then we’re in this.
NN: Well, I was going to finish by asking what one insight or advice might you offer to people listening and you’ve kind of moved into that direction anyway. But if there was one entry point that you could offer people to help do what you’ve just expressed. So to rekindle this sense of care and connection with the place, wherever they are right now, what might that be? If there was something they could do to open that door?
AL: Well one, I mean, you don’t have to take psychedelics. But if you do, do it safely. Do your research, know what you’re taking, speak to people who’ve done it before, pay attention to your mental health both before and after. And pay attention to what the experience is going to show you and do it in the safe environment. Take care, but you don’t have to take psychedelics. You can forge a relationship with place by what we call sit spots. So you find the spot where you’re comfortable sitting and you go back to it and you go back to it. And if you can go back at different times of the day and night if that’s safe for you, if that’s possible. And I appreciate that’s not possible for everyone. And you just go and sit and you go and pay attention and you notice what’s there and you notice the different feelings at different times of day and what’s happening and how it makes you feel.
I think all of this comes down to paying attention to a quality of what I would call active receptivity. Or there’s another fancy word oscultation, which is actually a medical term, but it means really listening actively. So listening is a kind of wider metaphor. I don’t just mean listening with your ears, but really paying attention to what you’re beholding, what is being presented to you. And if you do that, I mean, just do it for a week and I promise you, you’ll start to forge your relationship with place.
I know someone who when his colleagues at work and he was working in the city in London, when they used to go out for a cigarette, he would just nip out to his sit spot and it might just be a [inaudible 00:57:48] tree in the street. But it’s enough. Do that and it will pay dividends and you will start to feel a new sense of connection to place and a new sense of care. And you’ll notice when climate change is starting to bite because you’ll notice that it’s weird, like these weird hot late Autumns we’ve been having. I know they feel weird to me. I know this in an intellectual way, but they feel. I feel it in my chest, in my stomach. I feel weird. When you’ve got that attention, you’ll notice and you’ll be invested and you’ll care and you’ll feel like you belong.
NN: Which is actually the thing that I think we most need right now.
AL: Yeah, I agree.
NN: Well, thank you so much. You’ve given me so much of your time. I really, really enjoyed listening to you.
AL: It’s been an absolute pleasure. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself.