How Psychedelics Can Heal Humanity’s Relationship With Nature

All of the different species of life that have ever existed on planet Earth have been confronted with changes in the environment which threatens its survival, and the competency, aptitude and adaptability with which it deals with these changes dictates that species’ effectiveness and favorability as an organism in the grand scheme of life. Our species, Homo sapiens, is facing an environmental crisis. This is not a localized crisis, isolated in a remote part of the world; this crisis is a planetary one. This crisis is a unique one when compared to the environmental cataclysms that have plagued life in the past. Most environmental changes that create hardships for life are caused by some inorganic event; volcanos, asteroid impact, sea level rise, climate change, and the like. Yet the crisis that Man finds himself in right now is one of his own devising. Our behaviors are directly causing catastrophic environmental changes, as the current scientific evidence makes abundantly clear. The life-threatening environmental changes that happened in the past were out of the control of the all those species affected, but Man has the power to avert this environmental crisis if he is able to acquire a new power over his own nature. What could possibly alter the current ideological, moral and ethical state of Man as well as his relationship to his environment, and do it quickly enough that the momentum of our current situation can be diffused before another mass extinction results from our own folly? The answer to this question is currently growing out of countless piles of cow shit across the world. The intelligent and responsible consumption of psychedelic drugs can be demonstrated to be the most efficient and effective way to lead humanity towards a new ethical relationship with the Earth, and ultimately save us from ourselves.

Before I continue, it is important to note how an individual experience can change the collective thoughts and behaviors of a species. Contrary to popular belief, changes at the micro-level can have drastic effects on the macro-level. It is easy to fall into the intellectual trap of thinking that an individual on the micro-level cannot affect something as large as society as a whole on the macro-level. Though, just like how an ocean is a multitude of individual drops, a society is a multitude of individual humans. Though the psychedelic experience is only experienced by the individual under the influence of the drug, and does not affect society in the same way that the introduction of a sports stadium might affect a city, it still affects society as a whole through each individual in that society being influenced by their personal experience. With cultural transformations pertaining to psychedelics, the first occurs with the individual, the second with the social system.

“Psychedelic” is just a word; though it does happen to be the most accepted word for a class of substances that have profound effects on the human mind. There are other words that people have created to define and categorize the incredibly broad effects of these substances, and these words include hallucinogens, psychotropics, mysticomimetics, empathogens, entheogen, and countless other names that attempt to encompass the mysterious effects that these substances have. “Psychedelic” has been the one to stick though; and for good reason. The term psychedelic comes from the Greek roots psyche, meaning mind or soul, and delos, meaning to manifest or to make clear. Psychedelics, in the root sense of the term, manifest the mind. To manifest means to bring up into awareness those contents of the mind which were previously latent, or submerged beneath conscious thought. Though this is just one thought as to what they do or what role they play in the scheme of nature. If one were to take a step back and see these substances in the grand scheme of nature, one would see that they are actually allemones.

An allemone is a chemical that one species produces to influence the growth, reproduction, and survival of another species. The process of communication with said allemone is called allelopathy. The chemical psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in “magic” mushrooms, exerts a strange experience amongst animals that consume it. Psilocybin is not the only psychoactive substance which the natural world organically produces that has the mysterious “psychedelic” effect; dimethyltryptamine is another such chemical endogenous to life. It is found in high concentrations in thousands of different plants and animals, including the human brain[1]. Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is suspected to be produced by the pineal gland in the brain, and to be the brain’s way of causing dreams during REM sleep. Mescaline, the active ingredient of the peyote cactus used by multiple Native American populations, is also a very powerful psychedelic agent. These chemicals produced by nature may influence us in such a way that is beneficial to our growth, reproduction and survival of a species, the process of which will also be ultimately beneficial to the species who creates these allemones. Even past simply influencing us in a positive way, it may be a way to “allow contact with what we might call the mind of nature”[2], or the “mind of Gaia”[3]. Under the influence of psilocybin or DMT, it is not uncommon to encounter entities or spirits which represent parts of the natural world, or to have incredibly profound and humbling experiences that put into context one’s place amongst the natural world, and we must keep open to the possibility that all the experiences in which these plant-based psychedelics offer are intelligently tailored by nature to influence those who consume it in a way that benefits that species, and subsequently the entirety of the natural world.

How could these experiences induced by these plant-based chemicals have an effect on Homo sapiens in a way that helps benefit our relationship to the environment? One way may be the experience of death that the plant-hallucinogens predictably offer.

“Man is the only animal whose existence is a problem in which he feels he needs to solve” said Erich Fromm, the famous humanist psychoanalyst[4]. We are born into these heart-pounding, breath-gasping, decaying bodies, and this causes us a tremendous amount of anxiety. We exist as animals with a finite existence on this planet, animals that will die and rot in the ground, yet at the same time we house in our psyche a drive for an immortal destiny, a need to assign grandiose meaning to our lives in an attempt to transcend our physical mortality. Ernest Becker, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death, states that “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with”[5]. Ernest Becker asserts that the human psyche is in a constant struggle with the reality of death and mortality, so much so that the human condition can be characterized by the active effort to deny all things that face us with the reality of death. Irvin Yalom elaborates on this in his book Existential Psychotherapy, where he says “to cope with [the fear of death], we erect defenses against death awareness, defenses that are based on denial, that shape character structure, and that, if maladaptive, result in clinical syndromes. In other words, psychopathology is the result of ineffective modes of death transcendence”[6]

Examples of how the human capacity to deny mortality can be demonstrated through many cultural taboos. One such example is the censorship of sexuality which, to varying degrees, is present in every known human culture. Breastfeeding in public is a very present taboo in our society, as well as the censorship of female breasts in general. Male nipples are also censored in society; almost all children cartoons show shirtless male characters with an absence of nipples. We seem to be the only animals that hide and censor our genitals and sexual organs, and this is due to the fact that human beings are the only animals who are ashamed of sexuality, as genitals and the need to sexually reproduce are symbols of the fact that we are mortal animals. Angels and gods are always depicted as not having genitals, because it is engrained in religious mythology that divine beings have transcended mortality, and have thus transcended the need to sexually reproduce. The act of sex is as characteristic to animals as is eating and defecating, two other things that divine immortal beings have no need to do. We long to be immortal, so we create and idolize transcendent and immortal mythic figures that represent the highest aspirations of the human species.

Humans are also the only animals that shave the hair off of our face and bodies in an attempt to be more attractive to the opposite sex. Hairlessness is a desirable trait in the sexuality of the human species; which may explain why we are the only hairless ape, or what Desmond Morris calls “the naked ape”[7]. Shaving the hair off of our face and body is an obvious denial of our animal nature, literally removing traces of evidence that we have small patches of hair of the same like as chimpanzees. We also are the only animals that disguise and place a sensory façade over our natural body odor; we use deodorant and perfumes to overpower the natural smell of our pheromones which are naturally useful to subconsciously communicate genetic information and to find genetically compatible sexual partners. Another mascot of the denial of our animalistic mortality is the blatant denial of the processes of urination and defecation. Humans are the only animals that must hide behind locked doors to feel comfortable enough to defecate, as the act of defecation is an animal act, and thus a mortal act. The human propensity to feel shame about defecation and urination is thus another way in which we try to escape and deny our own animalism.

How is this denial of death affecting the human relationship to the environment? It is quite simple, actually. Humans want to believe that we are not animals; that we are not beings that are doomed to blindly and dumbly rot in the ground and disappear forever. Because we so strongly desire to be something which we are not, we reject and push away everything that hints at the reality which we do not want to see. Because we don’t want to believe we are mortal as is the rest of nature, we push away and turn nature into the other. This othering creates a fundamental disconnection between humans and the natural world, as we crave to believe that we are something separate from it, and subsequently not subjected to the reality of mortality which curses all living things. This othering of the animal allows us to literally dehumanize the animal world, which allows us to reason our negative actions towards the environment which may cause ecological stress or even eventual extinction of certain animals that live in the areas which we choose to exploit. How can psychedelics help dissolve this human propensity to turn nature into the other?

Psychedelics help decondition our fear of death through offering the experience of death. “A fear must be experienced before it can be reduced or destroyed”[8], and the plant-psychedelics reliably induce the experience of death. In terms of treatment of death anxiety, the most important component of the psychedelic experience is the religious “sense of oneness and unity with the universe”[9]. This is often called ego-transcendence, and is the primary factor of the psychedelic experience that alleviates death anxiety. This experience is characterized by the loss of the body and the sense of self, as “ego identification and ego boundaries are weakened”[10]. If a human holds the belief that they are nothing more than their body and do not exist outside of their body, death entails the destruction of everything we perceive ourselves to be; true death. This mindset is anxiety-producing to an individual because through this interpretation, death is seen as the true end of one’s existence. When the fear of death is dissolved, it is usually done so through a deep realization of cosmic unity. This sense of cosmic unity compels one to identify themselves with the universe as a whole compared to just their ego. The patient transcends their ego, and death anxiety is alleviated because the patient is left with a profound revelation that they are one with the universe. In other words, “the person becomes very much aware of being part of a dimension much vaster and greater than himself”[11]. When this revelation is had authentically through the psychedelic experience, death is seen as a transformation rather than an end. This alleviates, dissolves and allows one to transcend the innate death anxiety that characterizes the human condition, the anxiety which causes humans to create a psychological disconnect between us and the other animals. The experience of death allows us to lose the anxiety associated with death, and brings us closer to fully realizing that we are just another animal in the kingdom of life, and would make Man less apt to see himself as something separate from nature; a separateness that allows us to dominate and destroy nature.

When we move closer to seeing ourselves as a part of nature and identifying with the natural world, as a strand in the web rather than the spider on top of it, our behavior towards the nature will profoundly change. Theodore Roszak, author and champion of theEcopsychology movement, states that “if the self is extended to include the natural world, behaviors leading to the destruction of that world would be experienced as self-destruction”[12]. This is a profound notion; if one was to see the natural world as an extended part of who they are, any action that destroys the natural world will be experienced as harm being done to themselves. Psychedelics often produce a profound sense of “unity with nature” in those who ingest them, and this extension of the sense of self to include nature would drastically change that person’s relationship with the Earth. If each person in a society had a profound experience of unity with the natural world as a product of a psychedelic experience, the entire ideological orientation of society would shift. We would see that the Earth is one whole living system in which we are an inseparable part, and that polluting the oceans or cutting down forests is ultimately harmful to ourselves. When we fully realize that we are merely a strand in the web of life, we will be less likely to destroy that web and more likely to act symbiotically with it. Psychedelics may be the most efficient way to realize our connectedness to nature and to bring about the behavioral changes that come with that realization.

In conclusion, psychedelic substances are incredibly powerful and mysterious chemicals that assert a powerful and profound impact on the human psyche, and the intelligent use of these substance may cause certain changes which will collectively shift humanity in ways that influence our species to behave more ethically towards the natural world. These chemicals may very well be powerful teachers that evolved specifically to function as such, as a way to learn from the mind of Gaia. These substances could help absolve humanity from our inherent denial of mortality and help us accept death, and help rid us of our othering of the natural world on the basis of our subconscious rejection of the reality of death that our animal nature entails. The profound effects of the psychedelic experience could also shift our sense of self to include the natural world, and thus lead us to treating the health of the Earth as we would treat the health of our own bodies. These incredible substances may very well be the catalysts that change the ideological state of our species and bring us closer to a new Earth ethic.

 

[1] Rick Strassman, DMT: The Spirit Molecule (Rochester: Park Street Press, 2001), 31.

[2] Paul Devereux, Whispering Leaves: Interspecies Communication? (San Francisco: Disinformation Books, 2015), 78.

[3] James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), ix.

[4] Erich Fromm, “The Psychological Problem of Man in Society” in On Being Human, (New York: Bloomsbury Academics, 1997), 32.

[5] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: The Free Press, 1973), 15.

[6] Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (New York: Basic Books, 1980), 27.

[7] Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape (New York: Dell Publishing Co, 1967)

[8] Michael Mithoefer, MD “MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy: How Different Is It from Other Psychotherapy?” in Manifesting Minds (Berkeley: Evolver Editions, 2014), 126.

[9] Lerner, Michael, “Values and Beliefs of Psychedelic Drug Users: A Cross Cultural Study” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs (2006), 150.