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.


Altered Conference



Ayahuasca: Divine Doorway or Augmented Reality?

Image Source: Alex Grey

Since participating in my first Ayahuasca retreat in Peru in May I keep returning to a simple question:

What exactly is Ayahuasca?

Is it truly a “plant teacher?” What does that even mean? Is it a plant with consciousness? Is it a spirit?

In other words: does Ayahuasca grant us access to something outside of ourselves?

Or is Ayahuasca best conceived of as a tool of Augmented Reality that merges with our consciousness to give us this wildly magical, seemingly revelatory experience? Is it a sort of technological interface that allows us to iterate on our own code?

If this last comparison sounds funny to you, I would call your attention to the language with which people often speak of Ayahuasca as a form of “deprogramming” or “reprogramming.” Those who use this language are not simply those with a background in tech. In her wonderful book Listening to Ayahuasca, clinical psychologist Rachel Harris observes this same phenomenon in how people often describe Ayahuasca as a form of “reprogramming.”

Depending on our background we might gravitate strongly towards one of set language; in fact, we may well bristle at the alternative description. Those who are inclined to adopt the former viewpoint of Ayahuasca as Plant Teacher might dismiss the use of modern technological terminology as off base at best, and cultural appropriation at worst.

Those who identify more with the latter description–Ayahuasca as a form of technology–will, at best, raise an eyebrow at talk of spirits and plant consciousness and, at worse, dismiss the value of Ayahuasca altogether.

If Ayahuasca did anything, it made me less certain about some pretty firm beliefs that I had about the way that this universe operates. It shattered my ego. It opened my heart. It demanded that I recognize the magic and mystery of this universe.

If I’m less sure of many beliefs here are a few that are still somewhat intact:

#1: Ayahuasca has tremendous value for many people, as a medicine, as a tool for personal growth, and as a pathway for spiritual development (if one feels comfortable using such language)

#2: Ayahuasca is not for everyone. 

#3: Our experience of reality is as we choose to perceive it.

The mind is a meaning making machine. To what extent is knowledge discovered, as opposed to constructed?

The majority of those educated in the West no longer subscribe to the notion that religious texts are divinely revealed. Such a suggestion would invite ridicule from most college educated people, privately if not publicly. Yet this is often the sort of language that we use concerning breakthroughs in the domains of science and technology, such as when we talk about “scientific discoveries.”

A recent conversation with Stephen Reid, founder of the Psychedelic Society of the UK, compelled me to reflect on the ways in which we use language around the acquisition of knowledge. While earning his masters in Physics at Oxford Stephen’s studies with quantum mechanics forced him to rethink the very nature of scientific knowledge: do we discover scientific truths? Or is this knowledge constructed because it is inescapability related to the person perceiving it?

Just as priests had supreme power in the the Middle Ages today’s scientists enjoy similar clout. People often invoke scientific studies to support their point of view, though few rarely understand the “small” yet crucial caveats and assumptions and nuances involved in such studies.

Research on Ayahuasca is still very nascent. Unlike controlled substances for which we can isolate a specific compound–such as LSD, psilocybin, MDMA or even DMT, the psychoactive compound in the Ayahuasca plant, Ayahuasca is a mix of natural plants. The very nature of consuming Ayahuasca falls outside the normal boundaries and protocols called for by rigorous scientific studies.

Thus, in my attempts to come to terms with this question–”What exactly is Ayahuasca?”–of course I have nothing to go on but my own subjective experience, along with the thousands of accounts of other people, all of which constitute “anecdotal evidence” by modern scientific standards.

The Western education system in which I was raised has instilled in me a strong sense of skepticism about jumping to conclusions, to acknowledge what is an inference or intuition vs. more reliable, tested hypothesis and theories.

On the other hand, the history of science itself should give us pause as to what we think we know: how many “truths” have been upended over the centuries? I say this not to discount the scientific method but to give us pause and a deep sense of humility before we respond.

My own studies of Eastern religions and meditation have given me an appreciation for modes of investigation into the mind that are rational, empirical and systematic while also honoring that this can–and in fact must!–be done within a subjective framework: the experience of what it is like to be “me.”

While science will someday, hopefully unlock the mysteries of consciousness this knowledge alone would not fundamentally change the mystery of experiencing reality from the perspective of the individual: the sense that we’re “in here,” looking out, and most of the time simply equating reality with our perceptions, our interpretations of those perceptions and the subsequent thoughts, images, and feelings that arise and fall across the projector screen of our own awareness.

Ultimately, we decide how we’re going to navigate every twist and turn of this matrix–at least until Ray Kurzweil has his way and merges us with machines.

Perhaps one day we will merge with machines. Breakthroughs in Augmented Reality technology will undoubtedly offer some fascinating avenues for exploring the mind. 

But in the meantime Ayahuasca, and other psychedelics, represent some of the most powerful tools we have for exploring our own consciousness.

So what’s my conclusion: Is Ayahuasca closer to a Divine Doorway or Augmented Reality?

Night after night, Ayahuasca came on like a spirit and felt like a Divine presence. It vastly deepened my connection to nature and to the universe itself. It opened me up to the Divine in the original sense of the term, which derives from its Sanskrit root “dev” meaning “to shine” or “to illuminate.”

At the very least it certainly shifted my own view on the nature of consciousness: I’m not sure if all plants have consciousness but my strong intuition–my intuition, not knowledge–is that this plant certainly does. If neuroscience alone explains the Ayahuasca experience then why doesn’t the experience of ingesting synthetic forms of DMT have this same “spirit like,” even maternal, quality to it?

Call it a plant teacher. Call it a technology. Call it whatever the hell you want. If Ayahuasca’s purpose is to loosen the grip of the ego then let’s be more open to the ways in which people from different backgrounds use language to describe the Ayahuasca experience.

Language is inescapably rooted in specific cultures and particular ways of thinking. If Ayahuasca is about opening to something greater we’re ultimately going to have to find ways to forgive each other for the limitations of our own languages and cultures.

If these plants offer any hope for transcending tribalism in all of its forms–political, economic, religious–then let’s not get too hung up on language, for ultimately we’re trying to describe something which is indescribable.

Any plant or technology that has the potential to allow us to understand our own consciousness, to heal from emotional wounds, and to wake up to the destruction that we are causing to each other and to this planet should be included as a viable, legal and respectable path for those of us who are so inclined, regardless of what we call it.

Unleashing the Scream

Image source: “The Scream,” by Edvard Munch, 1893.

In my previous post “The War on Drugs is a War on All of Us” I talked about how the drug war has reached a new low: it designates veterans as criminals for the crime of seeking alternative, natural solutions, such as Cannabis and Ayahuasca, to the trauma of war.

This is what the drug war does: it turns large masses of non violent people, good citizens, into criminals. It denies people the right to make the most basic of choices. Moreover, it does so along criteria that make little to no sense in terms of the actual scientific evidence concerning the threat of these substances to society.

Just like the prohibition on alcohol, the prohibition on these other substances is a colossal failure. Now we’re realizing that our current policy also involves denying access to tools that have great medicinal and therapeutic value, as well as the potential to unlock creativity and to enhance problem solving.

This is the ruthless machinery of the Prison Industrial Complex and the Drug War in action.

For those of us who are inspired by the activism of individuals and organizations like Ian Benouis, Veterans for Entheogenic Therapy and Weed for Warriors, how can the rest of us make a difference?

“The rest of us” being not just those of us who benefit from the use of plant medicines and psychedelics but also:

1) those with friends and family who experience positive benefit from the use of these substances

2) those who believe in an individual’s right to freely explore their own mind in private, peaceful settings

3) those who want stop wasting trillions of dollars on public policies that are totally ineffective and stop imprisoning people for nonviolent crimes

It’s important for people with cultural capital and political power to SPEAK UP.

Veterans have lots of political power. No politician wants to be seen as anything less than a strong supporter of veterans.

Other groups also have lots of cultural capital. Leaders in the business community. Entrepreneurs. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals and researchers. Academics and educators. Journalists and those working in the media. Designers and artists.

People in certain professions, like lawyers, understandably can’t, for legal reasons. In other professions the cultural pressure to stay silent is strong. As a former K12 teacher I can certainly empathize with this position.

It’s no secret that drug laws are applied very unevenly along racial lines: even though drug use are approximately equal between whites and blacks, arrests for drug use fall overwhelmingly and disproportionately against people of color.

Source: The Sociological Cinema, Pinterest

(Left image: Samahisa 2011; Right image: Human Rights Watch, 2009)

Speaking frankly, educated middle and upper class white people need to be more vocal. Depending on our background, where we live, and what we do, this can be a very challenging conversation to have.

But if we can’t talk about it who can? Black and brown people–even those who are highly educated and middle to upper class–assume a magnitude of risk in speaking out that their white counterparts do not share.

Those who are considering speaking up should rightly ask themselves what it might cost them to speak up. But they should also ask themselves what it will cost them, and cost America, and the rest of the world, to stay silent.

I appreciate how difficult it can be to discuss topics that are culturally taboo. But this inertia–this deafening silence–has underwritten the perpetuation of injustices past and present. It’s this silence that’s underwriting our current regime of Mass Incarceration, this horrific incarnation of “American Exceptionalism:” that “the US locks people up at a faster rate than any other country.”

Source: BBC

As Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Contrary to popular perception historical progress doesn’t descend from the grace of gifted leaders seated upon high, but bubbles up from the many, persistent actions of ordinary men and women who can no longer stomach staying silent in the face of overwhelming hypocrisy and injustice.

Though we talk about someone like Martin Luther King precisely because he was so remarkable, what made the Civil Rights Movement so successful was the inspiring courage of ordinary people who ferociously, lovingly and nonviolently brought down the monster that was Jim Crow.

The Civil Rights Movement ignited a renewal to commit to the deepest values that actually underpins the United States. It demanded that the US live up to the grand promises that it claimed to represent.

Paradoxically, the potential for dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex is so bright precisely because this system of oppression has been so merciless: for the victims of the drug war hail from every different demographic group in American society.

If veterans seeking solutions for their PTSD start getting caught up in the drug war, America might have to take a hard look in the mirror that it’s been avoiding for decades.

The limited effectiveness of many pharmaceutical drugs, their serious side effects, and their outrageously high costs are also what’s fuelling this small but rapidly growing interest in plant medicines, such as Ayahuasca, and other psychedelics.

Western science and medicine is beginning to validate the medicinal and therapeutic value of substances such as MDMA and psilocybin (found in “magic mushrooms”) to treat a range of ailments, from PTSD to depression to addictions to end of life anxiety for those with terminal illnesses.

While talk is cheap, rational dialogue in which evidence supports ideas and scientific data informs public policy, is the foundation for political discourse. It is really the only hope we have for a functioning democracy.

Can you find the courage to speak up, even if it begins with a whisper? Can you start simply by sharing this knowledge with others close to you, especially those that might be uniformed or even opposed to such ideas at first?

Let them know about the solid scientific research as well as the powerful stories from veterans and many others validating the therapeutic and medicinal benefits of these substances.

Here are a few resources that can steer you in the right direction:

What starts with a whisper builds into a chorus that swells into the scream that rattles the halls of Congress. That’s the sound of the song that will shatter this savage, heartless, broken machine into a million little pieces.

The War on Drugs is a War on All of Us

On the podcast this week Ian Benouis shared with us the power of plant medicines such as Cannabis, Ayahuasca, Ibogaine, and 5MEO-DMT to heal PTSD and other traumas. These plant medicines are literally providing a lifeline for some veterans returning home from war, many of whom find the predictable, pharmaceutical solutions to PTSD and depression either ineffective or fraught with too many undesirable side effects.

While Ian is focusing his energies on advocating for the rights of veterans to work with plant medicines he is quick to mention that these rights should exist for all people. Everyone should have the right to work with these tools, either for therapeutic purposes or for personal exploration and discovery.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ian. This is a big reason why I’ve started Hacking Consciousness: to promote a thoughtful and mature conversation about the ways in which people can use psychedelics for personal growth, exploration and evolution.

That said, I do think there is something particularly offensive in a bunch of politicians telling veterans that they don’t have the right to decide for themselves how to heal from the wounds of war.

These people put their lives on the line for their country. If Cannabis or Ayahuasca is more effective at helping some veterans to heal from their PTSD than Prozac or Zoloft, who thinks they have the right to tell these servicemen and women that this most personal of choices isn’t theirs to make?

Like the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex and the drug war that has fuelled it is very much a bipartisan issue. Regardless of party affiliation, many of those who have been the most diehard proponents of the drug war are often the very same politicians who LOVE to wrap themselves in the flag and talk about supporting the troops.

So as more veterans begin to wake up to the healing power of these plants will this group, the people who know what it’s actually like to fight a war, be the ones to help end the colossal failure that is the war on drugs?

Let’s make no mistake. This is a war. It’s a war on consciousness: a denial of an individual’s right to explore the most basic and personal of spaces, one’s own mind.

It’s a war against alternative, natural solutions to problems that Big Pharma alone cannot solve.

It’s a war against low income white communities ravaged by meth and by the opioid crisis. It’s a war against black, brown and Latino people all across the United States.

It’s a war against rural areas and inner cities.

It’s a war on Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike.

It’s a war that–undeniably, statistically speaking--has been one giant, abysmal failure: an obscene waste of money with a return on investment so poor that any business would have closed down this operation ages ago.

Drug addictions rate in the US have remained the same even as taxpayer costs have exploded.

Image Source: The Atlantic

Even worse than the squandering of financial resources has been the horrific destruction of human lives around the globe, a causality list far too long to catalogue in this blog post by a picture that Johann Harri so eloquently illustrates in his masterpiece, Chasing the Scream.

And now it’s a war on veterans, perpetrated by the same political class that sent them into war, one of which was totally unnecessary and for which the loudest voices were often politicians who never served a day of their life in uniform. In fact, many of these people received multiple draft deferments when their number was called.

Americans have too easily tolerated the atrocities of the drug war and the prison industrial complex when these crimes were perpetrated against people of color, as the mechanisms of the state served to function as The New Jim Crow, an argument that law professor Michelle Alexander systematically and brilliantly demonstrates in her book by that same name.

Now many veterans have to break the law in order to access treatments to heal their wartime trauma. As more veterans seek these treatments this raises a major political and cultural question:

Are we as a society seriously going to imprison veterans for breaking the law to access treatments for their wartime wounds? If this is not the most grotesque manifestation of the drug war–at least, one that is the least palatable to the American electorate–I don’t know what will end this nightmare.

Will this finally be what WAKES US UP as a people to what the drug war really is: it’s not a war on drug use, which has been raging despite escalating violence and the ineffectual propaganda campaign that masquerades as drug education in US schools (scientific studies have shown that DARE is completely ineffective at reducing teenage drug use).

Teenage drug use has actually increased under the DARE program.

Image Source: The Family Council on Drug Awareness

This is a war on people of all colors, all ages, and all political affiliations.

It’s a war on freedom.

Can the seemingly unstoppable machinery of the drug war and the prison industrial complex finally be brought to its knees?

Can we all finally agree that we’ve made a massive mistake, acknowledge that prohibition against other drugs doesn’t work any better than it did against alcohol, do the mature thing, and change our minds just like we did when we repealed the 18th Amendment with the 21st?

In fact this time the hurdles are MUCH lower. We don’t need to pass a constitutional amendment, but to continue the strong forward momentum of changes laws at the state level, starting with cannabis, then move on to the federal government.

Though Washington seems broken this issue holds the promise of broad bipartisan appeal, especially if more and more veterans continue to speak up about what these medicines are doing for them.

American society owes its veterans a great deal. At the VERY LEAST, we need to help them have access to quality and affordable physical and mental health care, whether that takes the form of a SSRI pill from a pharmaceutical company or medical marijuana or an Ayahuasca ceremony.

Let’s exert pressure on any politician who has the audacity to tell them otherwise. And together let’s fight to end a war that cannot be won, that never should have been waged, and that offends the most basic of our cherished freedoms: the right to explore our own consciousness.

How we breathe and how we feel are deeply interconnected

In the first podcast episode of the Hacking Consciousness, founder of Yoga Elements Adrian Cox spoke about the power of pranayama (breath control exercises) for entering into expanded states of consciousness. As he put it in our conversation:

 “Pranayama truly is the gateway to higher yoga and by yoga I mean expanded consciousness. It is the gateway, the step before meditation and the doorway with which our practice begins to really, truly deepen.”

   Let’s briefly define “pranayama.” In the yoga tradition “prana” is a term that refers to both our own breath and to the very life force that animates every particle of this universe. “Yama” can be translated as to regulate, to control, or to channel. Thus, pranayama is the process by which we learn to skilfully channel or regulate our breathing (our very life force).

In my own practice, I’ve certainly come to appreciate the wisdom in Adrian’s statement. Recognizing the relationship between the state of our breath and the state of our mind invites deeper insight into the ways in which the mind and the body are deeply interconnected, an essential point that we often forget when we’re deeply lost in thought.

 It’s also a view of consciousness that runs contrary to the traditional, dualistic body-mind split in Western thought that dates back to Descartes. In other words, especially for those of us in the West, we need to drop our assumptions that consciousness is simply equated with the brain, or that it’s even located solely in the region of the head.

 How we breathe is deeply connected to our nervous system. There are two major aspects of our autonomic (involuntary) nervous system: the sympathetic (“fight or flight” response) vs. the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) response.

Comparison of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Image Source: Osteopathy Calagary, 2016. Read More