1) “But surely postmodern sophistry isn’t the best answer.” Nor is this kind of labeling the best rebuttal. I’ve noticed the accusation of “postmodern sophistry” or the like surprisingly often recently. Usually it is given in response, as you have done, to a perception that certain categories within a system of thought, or within an argument, are being attacked non-constructively, just for the hell of it. Nihilism for the sake of nihilism.
I don’t think that this is actually the position of the sophists or the postmodernists, but I get the objection. My position is also different. I challenge categories not to leave a gaping void in their wake, but to hopefully show that the acceptance of categories, any categories, necessarily limits our understanding. This, by the way, also explains my dislike of “purity,” a dislike I’m glad to find we share.
I am influenced in this approach by Greek skepticism and by Nāgārjuna, both of which tried to achieve insight by breaking down, showing the absurdity and/or interdependence of, arbitrary categories and classifications.
2) “Upton’s proposition, that the spiritual and the psychic are distinct...” This distinction I do challenge. The distinction is historical and conditional. It accepts an Aristotelian, geocentric cosmology, which however is a powerful and often helpful myth of its own. But it’s a myth that divides the world in certain ways, like any other, and these divisions have ramifications for our understanding.
It’s interesting that Dante, the poet who beautifully immortalized this cosmological framework, also took the different realms and spheres expressed in it as states of mind. The literal sense is only one intended way to read The Divine Comedy, and not the deepest. Hell, Purgatory and Paradise are primarily differences in knowing, not ontologically separate realms.
And as subsequent poets -- like Ezra Pound -- point out, these states often penetrate one another, rapidly succeed one another, are experienced differently by different individuals simultaneously. The spiritual, the psychic, the astral, even the infernal, can all be experienced in this body, unintoxicated, at this moment. The experience does change depending on the experiencer and his or her changing states of mind.
Many thinkers and cultures have accepted this. Bruno, in alignment with the Hermetic view, overturned the traditional cosmology by claiming that there are an infinity of worlds, each its own centre, each containing the all. In Tibetan Buddhism there is the Chöd ritual which has the aim to accept even the demonic as the highest expression of the self/non-self. Shamanism throughout the world is predicated on the idea of the interpenetration of worlds/states of consciousness.
3) “You expressed incomprehension over the idea of disembodiment...” For me, embodied existence means perceptual existence. The senses, like Blake said, are the inlets of the soul for this age. If there is perception, there is a soul/body (I more or less equate the soul and body).
So-called “disembodied” experience still involves perception (and if it didn’t it would be no experience at all). This implies the senses and so a body (of some sort). But “disembodied” experiences often include a sensation of a long thin cord that is still attached to the present biological body. When this is cut the “body” dies and another body takes its place (or not?).
But I wonder about your own position. On the one hand, you stress the importance of the body and are against disembodiment, but on the other hand you seem to be promoting a spiritual and transcendent experience beyond or outside of the body. I’m assuming that you’re talking about two different types of disembodiment?
4) “The body has an optimum state in any given moment.” Possibly, but for what? How long does this last? An optimal state to receive a vision, for instance, might not be the optimal state to go to sleep or to run a marathon. The body/soul is in continual flux, and this is affected by sensations, memories, thoughts, emotions, culture, media... Which of these things are toxins? Which of these are produced by toxins? Which of these are beneficial for “spiritual” growth?
5) “Saying that everything alters consciousness or is storming heaven -- as if the whole fact of a spectrum makes every point on the spectrum equal and therefore the whole question is irrelevant -- smacks of sophistry.” I do think that everything alters consciousness -- all of the things listed above and more: food, water, sleep, other people, etc. -- but I didn’t say that everything storms heaven. Each point along the spectrum is different.
Yet there isn’t so much of a spectrum (ranging from what start to what end?) as there is a network that flashes from node to node. Perception changes constantly. There is no pure state. Certain states, though, do break thru, are experienced as glimpses of eternity. I just don’t see these as being transcendent or apart from the physical/material. They allow us to witness what is perpetually present, in this body, on this Earth.
Are these glimpses more frequent or more profound in the absence of “toxins”? I don’t think this question makes sense. Are people subsiding on a diet of Cheetos and M&Ms barred from having a vision of God? I’ve had lucid conversations with drunks (and while drunk!) and plenty of deadening, soul-sucking interactions with the absolutely sober. And of course the reverse. Grace may fall on both the “sinner” and the “sinless.”
The aim of detoxification is surely not wrong, but this in itself is no guarantee for obtaining sanctity of vision. Strict ascetics are occasionally transformed into spiritual monsters, acidhead wastrels become saints. Ego reduction rather than ascetic practice seems to be the key factor. We can likely agree that abstemious holier-than-thou posturing is nothing new.
6) We do like doing things that alter our consciousness. How could we not? This is like saying we like to live, as every moment of life involves the alteration of consciousness. But I think you mean abrupt alterations of consciousness. Rapid and extreme jerks from one state to another. Yes, many of us like that too. And yes, these alterations do affect the body. Always in a bad way? Never in a way that afterwards makes us healthier?
There is no perfectly toxin-free state of the body, as you appear to be saying, only relatively free (or differently intoxicated). We age because of toxins (entropic substances or forces outside of our physical body that disrupt its functions). Who doesn’t age? Who doesn’t die?
7) “You may have been stoned when we had our talk and it was a good one...” Hehe, did I sound stoned? I must not have had my tea. It’s difficult and expensive to procure weed here in Japan and the penalties are severe if you get caught with it. So I don’t have many opportunities to smoke a pile of it and I’m cautious when I do. These days, even when I possess it myself, I savour it and a little goes a long way. No, I could not do a podcast stoned. I wouldn’t want to try. Recently I get most high on books and the changing seasons. And yes it was a good talk!
8) “To compare fasting to entheogen-eating misses the point rather...” And you have missed mine. In my previous comment, I was not comparing general fasting with shroom-gobbling; I was specifically talking of Christ’s forty-day ordeal in the desert. This was undoubtedly a vision quest. This kind of extensive fasting has as its primary aim extreme consciousness alteration. My purpose for making this comparison is the obvious one of saying there are many roads to vision. Not all of them (any?) are particularly healthy for the physical body.
9) I’ve actually been quite influenced by Traditionalist thought (I think Guénon’s critique of “the reign of quantity,” for instance, is crucially important). I’ve read Guénon, Evola, Shuon and others, and through you I’ve become a little bit familiar with Upton. I wouldn’t criticize Upton or the rest for their use of “spiritual jargon.” That language is necessary for this field, and I use it without shame. But I am critical of certain ideas expressed by these writers.
Buddhism, in my opinion, should remain as a heresy to the Traditionalists if they are to be consistent. Unlike the traditions they revere (the Abrahamic faiths, orthodox Hinduism), Buddhism -- in most of its manifestations -- is not concerned with the transcendent. It does advocate the changing of consciousness (mostly through meditation), but it promotes this as a means to become more aware of existence in this body, in this world.
I think this is a very important difference, and this stress on immanence is also shared by Taoism, Confucianism, shamanism and other varied traditions. The central question is how to live well in this life, not a focus on the afterlife, union with the God outside of this world, etc. “Transcendent” experiences exist, and are sought after, but they are accepted as glimpses of our actual non-dual mutuality with all things.
And the point is to make these glimpses last longer and longer. Transcendence in radical immanence. God, existing or not, is synonymous with the world and our minds perceiving it. A pantheism without the pan, the theos, or the ism. The Buddha is not an avatar in this view -- or secondarily so -- but is one who has become aware and who provides a path for others to become aware.
Traditionalism, intended or not by its adherents, gets used these days by reactionary groups as a spiritual foundation for the politics of the latter. This is chiefly what I caution against. The cosmological hierarchies delineated by Traditionalism (whether or not these are held to literally exist by the religious traditions themselves), including the distinction between the “psychic” and the “spiritual,” can help to undergird and extend present and desired political and social hierarchies.
The recent popularity of Evola (and I’m aware that Traditionalists now try to distance themselves from Evola, but the positions of Guénon, etc. are not really that different) among the alt-right and others even further to the right is an illustration of this. Evola’s spiritual hierarchy, like all hierarchies, has its winners and losers, and the losers of his system nicely correspond with those targeted by the far right: the global South, the darker races, the religions of the Mother, women, the fluid and boundary-dissolving in general.
To the extent that psychedelics tend to promote the stretching and dissolving of categorical boundaries (which in my experience they certainly do), they in turn threaten those individuals and groups whose power and influence depend on the maintenance of rigid social and intellectual hierarchies. This is not to say that psychedelics and other means of boundary dissolution are not used by particular power structures in order to ideologically destabilize rival power structures, but it is true that the use of these agents is subversive to concentrated power in general. They are two-edged swords at the very least.
Guénon writes of the widening cracks of the Great Wall, the latter a barrier protecting our psyches from the predatory entities of the astral realm. Psychedelics, according to the Traditionalists, would certainly widen these cracks, inviting possession and madness. Evola directly mentions psychedelics in this regard. But in late antiquity, the Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus had a similar warning for the unprepared:
All those who are offensive and who awkwardly leap after divine mysteries in a disordered way are not able to associate with the Gods due to the slackness of their energy of deficiency of their power. And on account of certain defilements they are excluded from the presence of pure spirits but are joined to evil spirits and are filled by them with the worst possession. They become wicked and unholy and, being glutted with undisciplined pleasures and filled with evil, they affect habits foreign to the gods. (Gregory Shaw trans.)
Notice, though, that Iamblichus doesn’t totally write off exploration of these middle realms, and in fact it is only through this zone that we could ever hope to reach the Intelligible. Our experiences of the highest Spirit must be mediated by more corporeal emanations. But through theurgical practice and technique -- which might include the ingestion of “simples” -- the soul guided by reason and love could make the journey.
The Traditionalists argue that without enlightened initiation and guidance -- both extremely rare in this era -- this journey is essentially impossible. To undertake it haphazardly or ignorantly is to flirt with madness, death or getting irretrievably lost in the Bardo. Only the reestablishment of traditional priestly structures and hierarchies of initiation, and thus the reactionary politics required to reinstate these institutions, would make such a journey safe enough to attempt.
But millions have and do attempt the journey. Very few are successful, but on the other hand, most are not ruined utterly. Most remain quasi-initiated, half-baked maybe, but altered in both positive and negative ways, as with most experiences.
The contrast to the metaphor of the widening cracks in the Great Wall is that of the gradual opening of the Doors of Perception, coming from Blake. Psychedelics do, at least occasionally, help to open these doors. This is really undeniable. The narrow chinks in the cavern of our sensory perception are widened. Although the doors can be traversed both ways, of course.
As we open and peer out, extending our experience of the world, mind beholding mind, things can and do enter in, but even in this benighted age we are not totally defenseless. Travel reports filter back. We find guides along the road, guides that maybe have only taken a few intrepid and reckless steps beyond our own and then retreat, but this news is sufficient to allow us to stumble forward in the dark. Pitfalls and traps and other potential dangers are marked. Rough maps are sketched out. We proceed not entirely blindly.
It’s hardly a storming of heaven. This isn’t a titanic assault on Olympus. If we’re being seduced and misled by counter-initiatory and counter-traditional powers then these are extremely inefficient. Were psychedelics designed and disseminated by these and lesser agencies to direct the course of culture in a predetermined way, as the absolutist just-so story now goes? But designed by who exactly?
It’s easier to make this case for synthetic chemical compounds like LSD, but what about mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca? Were all these agents of “intoxication” placed in the garden millennia ago to ensnare our psyches? Yet the most archaic accounts say the opposite -- these plants are the foods of the gods. And as they “intoxicate” so do other methods -- extreme fasting, sleep deprivation, other physical austerities and ordeals -- similarly unbalancing our “normal” physical state.
I don’t think that anyone could make the case that the CIA and other agencies haven’t attempted, and likely still attempt, to control the psychedelic experience. But did they succeed? This can be by no means unambiguously confirmed. In my opinion, based on my own experience and the reports of others, there is much more evidence that they failed in their quest, and perhaps spectacularly so. And how could they have succeeded? It would be akin to fully locking down the astral dream realm. I can’t imagine how even a single trip of mine could be controlled. All within is unexpected and unpredictable.
Yet the evidence given by the usual conspiracy-monger set is that the “degenerate” changes in society subsequent to the psychedelic revolution -- and the breakdown of traditional religions, feminism, the “gay agenda,” increased immigration and multiculturalism, “socialism” usually top the list -- is somehow proof that psychedelics effectively nudged culture towards the desired course.
But all of these things (and by no means are they necessarily evil in themselves) were well in the works before psychedelics became widespread, and for not a few users psychedelic experience led in the opposite direction -- back to traditional religion and conservative politics (Upton himself is a prime example, perhaps you are also).
In the old days, psychedelics were blamed for pushing young people towards godless communism. But personally my trips escorted me to a contrary path -- away from state communist agnosticism to a kind of anti-authoritarian pantheism. All part of the Agenda? From the Reign of Quantity to the dominion of the Anti-Christ? Maybe so!
But to try to wrap this up: I’m also very wary of psychedelics -- even pot -- and I never advocate doing them these days without prior warning. They often do lead people astray and more than occasionally disastrously so. Malign possession is a very real possibility, and there is always the potential that our experiences are being monitored and directed to some extent.
Yet grace is also present here. Boldness tends to be favoured by the gods. Real wisdom can be gained. The striving for purity and order and perfect predictability can be more dangerous than a leap into the unknown. And is it hard to see how no longer locking people up for desiring such a leap could be anything other than a good thing.