Hacking the Self

#013: Listening to Ayahuasca with Rachel Harris

Guest Bio: Psychologist Rachel Harris, PhD is the author of Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD and Anxiety. She was in private practice for thirty-five years working with people interested in psychospiritual development. During a decade working in research, Rachel received a National Institutes of Health New Investigator’s Award and published more than forty scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals. She has also consulted to Fortune 500 companies and the United Nations.

Links:

Website

Facebook

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#012: Artificial Intelligence and The End of the Human Era with James Barrat

This week I sit down with James Barrat, documentary film maker and author of “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and The End of the Human Era.” James walks us through the history of AI, outlines the potential dangers, and talks about the need for a thoughtful and honest conversation about how to reap the benefits and mitigate the risks of AI in the future.

Guest bio:

Time Magazine named author and filmmaker James Barrat one of 5 Very Smart People Who Think Artificial Intelligence Could Bring the Apocalypse because of his groundbreaking nonfiction book, Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. 

For more than 20 years Barrat’s award-winning documentary films have set ratings records for National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, and other broadcasters in the US and Europe.

Show links:

Personal Website

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#011: Rational Mysticism with John Horgan

This week on Hacking Consciousness: science writer John Horgan on his book Rational Mysticism. We explore the following topics:

  • what science and reason can help us to understand about the nature of consciousness
  • the limits of scientific knowledge
  • the idea of enlightenment
  • the value and drawbacks of using psychedelics to understand the mind
  • and more…

Guest Bio:

John Horgan is a veteran science journalist and Director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He writes the “Cross-check” blog for Scientific American (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/). His books include The End of Science, The Undiscovered Mind, Rational Mysticism and The End of War. He is now completing a book on the mind-body problem.​

Horgan’s work has been covered by print, radio, and television media, including The New York Times, PBS, BBC, MSNBC and National Public Radio. His awards include the Science Journalism Award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Science Writers Science-in-Society Award.

Where to Find John:

Twitter

Website

Scientific American

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#010: The Psychedelic Gospels with Dr. Jerry Brown

In this episode I speak with Jerry B. Brown, Ph.D., co-author of The Psychedelic Gospels. Jerry is an anthropologist, author, and activist. From 1972 to 2014, he served as founding professor of anthropology at Florida International University in Miami, where he taught a course on “Hallucinogens and Culture.”

Guest Bio:

In this episode I speak with Jerry B. Brown, Ph.D., co-author of The Psychedelic Gospels. Jerry is an anthropologist, author, and activist. From 1972 to 2014, he served as founding professor of anthropology at Florida International University in Miami, where he taught a course on “Hallucinogens and Culture.”

Julie M. Brown is an integrative psychotherapist, who conducts research on the role of sacred plants in religion.

Shownotes:

0:00-4:15: Welcome and introductory remarks.

4:15-12:15: Jerry’s background and backstory to writing the book

12:15-24:15: The evidence for psychedelic mushrooms in Christian art

24:15-37:20: Role of psychedelics in religions

37:20-48:10: Considering the evidence for psychedelic use by Jesus and his disciples

48:10-59:20: The esoteric vs. exoteric sides of religion; why psychedelics can facilitate

                         mystical experiences

59:20-1:00:02: How to get in touch with Jerry

Links:

Psychedelic Gospels

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#009: The Promise of Psychedelic Research with Dr. Stephen Bright

Guest Bio for this week: Dr. Stephen Bright

Dr. Stephen Bright is a leading voice on psychedelic research and drug policy in Australia.

Stephen is a clinically-trained psychologist, though he identifies as an ethnopharmacologist (i.e, a person who studies the human relationship with drugs). He is a leading Australian voice on the role of drug policy on emerging drug trends such as synthetic cannabis and darkweb marketplaces.

Shownotes

0:00-3:09: Welcome, opening remarks, Dr. Stephen Bright’s bio.

3:09-7:10: Steve’s background in psychedelic research

7:10-12:45: How MDMA & other psychedelics can help treat trauma

12:45-18:42: Psychedelics (Entheogens) & Spiritual Experiences

18:42-23:23: Integrating psychedelic experiences

23:23-34:23: What distinguishes MDMA from other psychedelics

34:23-40:10: Obstacles to psychedelic research in Australia

40:10-47:05: Consideration of the relative toxicity of alcohol, psychedelics and opiates

47:05-51:14: Upcoming events and contact info for Dr. Bright

Links:

PRISM

How to find Dr. Stephen Bright

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#008: Hacking the Ideal Psychedelic Ceremony with Julian Vayne

In this episode I speak with Julian Vayne, author of Getting Higher: The Manual of Psychedelic Ceremony. Julian shares with us his insights for crafting the ideal psychedelic experience. Moreover, he talks about the value of techniques for exploring consciousness that span many cultures and are independent of the underlying belief systems, such as the power of chanting and using breathing to alter one’s consciousness.

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#007: Thinking Out Loud: Finding the Courage to Talk Candidly about Religion

In “Thinking Out Loud” sessions I’ll share my own views in podcast format. In this first one my main goal is to provide information about my evolving views toward religion and my intentions for starting this show. The purpose of this podcast is, in part, to excavate the many valuable aspects of wisdom traditions from the dogma of organized religion.

In particular, I’m referring to contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga and pranayama, which still present us with some of the most powerful tools for understanding consciousness. I’m also a big proponent of the fact that myths have an important role to play in society, and religious metaphors are a legitimate and valuable source of meaning and identity for many people.

But in order to honestly acknowledge the positive aspects of religion for many people we have to be candid about the serious problems that religious beliefs continue to present to free societies, from terrorism to impeding scientific progress to attacks on basic human rights of individuals.

In having honest conversations about the positive and negative aspects of religion I hope to find common ground between those who find themselves on different sides of the fence. In a world that’s increasingly divided–in which we choose to curate content online that conforms only to our points of view and to ignore dissenting opinions–I think it’s essential to find some common ground.

Even more fundamentally, we have to commit to the project of trying to find common ground, of having constructive dialogue. Collectively, we’re doing very poorly at listening to people with opinions different from our own. We can only reason with those who are willing to submit to the basic rules of rational discourse: of using evidence to support arguments and basing conclusions off of evidence. But to those people who are willing to have the conversation we have to try to reach out.

I don’t intend for this show to be a “political” show, but occasionally and inevitably the issues at the heart of this show will intersect with politics and culture. After all, if we’re going to talk about the benefits of psychedelics on this show we’re implicitly saying that we should have the right to take these substances, even when we don’t always make this point explicitly. And I absolutely will make this point explicitly as well!

In having honest, candid conversations about religion we’re going to bump into political issues. In my view an honest discussion about the benefits and problems of organized religion is inevitably going to lead to positions that will offend conventional thinking across the political spectrum.

Way too many of us are stuck in “group think,” in identity politics, in points of view that not so coincidentally mirror those with whom we surround ourselves, both in person and online. I deliberately seek experiences that take me outside of my comfort zone. Psychedelics are a powerful tool for shattering one’s paradigm. Traveling to a different culture is one of the most effective. We can also harness the power of social media to engage with those with different viewpoints, in addition to connecting with others who share similar interests.

We have to “break the spell,” to use Dan Dennett’s phrase, but not only of religious literalism but in adherence to any ideology that demonizes those who dare to dissent. We have to reaffirm the fundamental value of freedom of speech in our willingness to engage in difficult conversations. We want to preserve the best of our traditions, and to discard that which is no longer useful, when we create the brighter, more hopeful future of tomorrow.

#006: Meditation & Psychedelics

My interview on Leonie Joubert’s podcast, “The Psychonauts.” I share my views on the relationship between psychedelics and contemplative practices, and how I became interested in both.

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#005: Revolutionizing Mental Health Care with Psychedelics

In this episode I sit down with Leonie Joubert, a science writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Leonie became interested in psychedelics through a now high profile court case that has gone all the way to South Africa’s Supreme Court. A favorable ruling for the defendant could lead to the legalization of psilocybin mushrooms.

 Leonie shares her thoughts on how psychedelics could potentially revolutionize mental health care in South Africa, by providing an effective, low cost alternative to healing trauma and expanding access to the vast majority of South Africans who are locked out of the current system. These lessons offer great potential not only for South Africa, but for the United States and for other countries struggling with the high costs of health care and pharmaceutical drugs.

How you can follow Leonie:

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Altered Traits, Not Altered States

This post was inspired by my conversation with Dax DeFranco, co-founder of the Altered Conference in Berlin, Germany. This year’s theme for the conference is: “Altered States, Crisis, and Opportunity.” In thinking about how the three aspects of the conferences’ presentations might come together–altered state experiences, conscious practices, culture and society–I wrote the following piece.

“The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits.”

-Huston Smith

Psychedelics are a powerful catalyst that, when used intentionally within a larger path, can be an accelerator for personal growth. This framework can be religious or secular, psychotherapeutic or shamanistic.

For many people, myself included, when we first come to psychedelics we are not on this path. One great benefit of these substances is that they can provide perspective into habitual patterns of negative behavior or false worldviews. Psychedelics can bring a sort of creative destruction that’s necessary to shake up the status quo in our lives.

Yet life is a balance of dynamism and stability. These forces are constantly cycling through our own bodies, through the larger collective, and through the universe. Sometimes we need to shake things up because they have become stale; inertia and complacency have set in. Yet connecting to those forces that ground us are also absolutely essential and appropriate with time.

Thus for me psychedelics over the long term must be seen not as a path in and of themselves, but as a profound tool–a gift from nature, really–to assist us in self actualization and to enhance our capacity to live in harmony with each other and with the planet.

The greatest value of these entheogens does not lie in their ability to produce altered states of consciousness, but in their remarkable capacity to induce altered traits of behavior.

This is the same road to which contemplative practices and plant medicines/psychedelics can lead us. To me it isn’t either/or, it’s both, and they work synergistically.

We should apply a similar criteria to our meditation and yoga practice. How does your practice translate into your life “off the cushion” or “off the mat?”

What good is your yoga practice if it’s not making you into a more content, happy human being who is–at least, most of the time–more present, kind and compassionate to those around you? If you can do a headstand consistently but can’t regularly be kind and considerate to other people you are not advanced in yoga, or even intermediate: you’re just an asshole who can stand on his head.

When working with contemplative practices we have to occasionally pause and reassess where we’ve made progress and where we’re still stuck in deeply rooted patterns of thought and reactivity. The day to day work of cultivating attention, self awareness and emotional regulation through yoga, Qi Gong, and meditation is crucial.

Yet it is precisely in these areas in which one feels stuck that entheogens can help us to cut through these knots. They can invite us into a direct experience of profound insights–not mere intellectual knowledge, but a deeper level of perception that pierces through the spider web spun by our own ego, the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world does or does not operate. These moments can shatter the illusion that we are separate from each other.

This is the matrix into which entheogens invite us: the discovery that life is an exquisite tapestry in which all of us are deeply interconnected, with all of the beauty, awe, inspiration, frustration, sadness and tragedy that accompany this state of affairs.

We’re still stuck in delusion if we think that we can head home after the ceremony and the work is done. The work has really just begun.

This recent article from Chacruna hit the nail on the head: “Why a Culture of Integration is Critical for the Modern Psychedelic Movement.”

Context is key. When we rip something out of a particular time and place–a plant, a technology–without a deep understanding of the other variables that were essential to the flourishing of that practice or system we not only disrespect those who showed us this wisdom, we miss out on on the chance to realize the full potential of this discovery, at best, and, at worse, we put ourselves at great risk.

This is a seemingly obvious point to anyone coming from a traditional background in which these substances, such as Ayahuasca, sacred cactus, or magic mushrooms, were used as sacraments and as medicine. While the experiences themselves can be magical, they’re not the end game.

This leads to a lot of confusion about people’s expectations and what constitutes a “bad trip,” which Dax brought up in our discussion. Challenging experiences on psychedelics often lead to some of the most worthwhile and enduring insights. If our intentions for working with these substances are rooted in a deeper intention to change for the betterment of ourselves and others we reframe how we interpret these experiences–moments that can be unimaginably trying, yet profoundly transformational.

If we can really tune into the message that the final destination is altered traits, not altered states, the true potential of psychedelics will begin to unfold before us.

Links:

Altered Conference

Chacruna