Friday, July 27, 2018

The interpretation of psychedelic experience is culturally bound

But even with the same substance, different cultures frame psychedelic experiences in different ways, leading to different experiences, as Andy Letcher argues in Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (2006). The idea that psychedelics predictably lead to a unitive experience beyond time, space and culture is itself culture-bound – it’s the product of US culture, and the perennialism of Huxley, Dass, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others. Other cultures have framed psychedelics very differently.

Indigenous American cultures have been taking psychedelic substances for millennia, and have developed their own frames for psychedelic drugs. The West rediscovered magic mushrooms in the 1950s when the amateur mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson travelled to Mexico in 1955 and took part in a mushroom ritual, guided by a Mazatec healing-woman called María Sabina. Wasson was sure he’d had a mystical experience, an encounter with the transcendental Divine, and this universal experience was at the root of all religions. He wrote up his experience in an article in Life magazine in 1957, which helped to instigate the psychedelic revolution.

But Wasson’s interpretation of his experience was quite different to the typical Mazatec interpretation. Sabina said: ‘Before Wasson, nobody took the saintchildren [what Sabina called the mushrooms] only to find God. They were always taken for the sick to get well.’ Rather than a connection to cosmic consciousness or some such mystical goal beyond time and space, Mazatecs took (and occasionally still take) mushrooms to connect to local saints or local spirits, to help with local problems in their relationships, work or health. In anthropological terms, theirs is a horizontal transcendence, rather than the vertical individualist transcendence of Wasson, Huxley et al.

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