Updated: Apr 14, 2021
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The growing plant medicine community is being called to face its shadows—
and realizing perhaps it’s not that different from mainstream culture after all.
Right now, it feels like the psychedelics train has left the underground station and is moving toward the general public at a rapid clip. As the world of sacred plant medicine begins to collide with Western cultural forces like capitalism and rugged individualism, will they coalesce or repel each other? Are they really as different as we think? The future isn’t clear.
Numerous concerns have arisen recently within the psychedelic community itself. Some have referred to the moment, fittingly, as a purge. These are not new issues, but it seems we are just now beginning to meet them head-on. We are being called to confront our own complicity, not only with the most obvious issues, such as corporations attempting to sink their teeth into sacred mushrooms with patents and commodification.
We are also facing other major issues, ones that make us reconsider whether these spiritual communities are changing culture or reflecting it: accounts of sexual assault and abuse, a pattern of thinly veiled white supremacy manifesting as white saviorism and neo-shamanism, and a surge of newcomers, often business-savvy spiritual Instagrammers, asserting their self-appointed leadership as coaches and course-makers, as psychedelics are hailed as the “next big thing” and they rush to get in on the front end before market saturation.
Movements are made up of humans. We are shaped by flaws, egos, trauma, shadow sides, and lifetimes of cultural conditioning. If not proactively changed, movements tend to mirror power structures in the dominant culture. One thing is clear: as much as those who ascribe to the “love and light” mentality would like to pretend otherwise, the psychedelic healing community is rife with issues that need our courageous and ongoing attention.
As we face these calls to accountability, the response from the community has the potential to help heal or multiply harm. Where we see victim-blaming and cancel culture in the mainstream, the psychedelic community often opts for avoidance and spiritual bypassing instead.
Proponents of psychedelics claim that these expanded states of consciousness can produce lasting and profound transformation. But for a collective species in a deeply interconnected world, can true transformation stop at the individual? Is it possible for an individual to be truly transformed, truly healed, when there is so much that needs to be healed in our immediate communities and the world at large? When one cell of a body is healthy, does that make the whole body healthy?
We must be willing to take an honest look at what needs to be transformed. If we are unwilling to do that, what makes the psychedelic community any different than a religious organization which professes one thing and lives another?
It is certainly tempting to focus on the individual, to maintain the illusion that there is a neutral path where we can opt-out of active participation and instead meditate on peace and love from the safety and comfort of our homes… and somehow believe that in doing so we are not complicit with injustice. Resistance and spiritual bypassing can be seen on comment threads and webpages, where psychonauts refuse to examine or acknowledge the ways systems of power and privilege continue to shape the psychedelics movement.
I experienced this avoidance firsthand a few years ago. I was at a small gathering with some people I knew from the Burning Man community. I dropped into a thoughtful conversation with a friend who is Black about the appropriation of peoples’ cultures. Situated in a cushy outdoor lounge space, we processed aloud why it is hurtful to see white people helping themselves to customs and attire for their aesthetic appeal. This is often done with no permission, acknowledgment, or reverence for history or cultural significance.
A white man and self-appointed coach and medicine keeper from Bulgaria overheard our discussion and cut me off. He invaded my personal space and aggressively stated that we were being low-vibey and “creating the problem by looking for it.” He insisted that people like us focusing on these “petty issues” were the reason we couldn’t all just move on and be one united human race. I almost thought he was joking. He was serious. It was a crystal-clear example of bypassing, entitlement, silencing and gaslighting. It was clear he was triggered- that he, a man who professed to know all about ego death, couldn’t even tolerate the idea, no matter how indirect, that he might be part of the problem. I left the event.
The memory of the experience was made worse in the years after, as I have witnessed so many New Age writers and influencers subtly perpetuating this idea that exploring history, harm and impact have no place in awakened love-and-light prevailing culture. If left unaddressed, this insidious attitude will result in an out-of-touch psychedelic community prone to doing further harm. It will be a community that fails to truly fulfill the healing potential of these transformative medicines.
It’s not always as blatant as the man at the party. Recently, Jonathan Glazer, co-founder of Thank You Plant Medicine, spoke on the Psychedelic Leadership podcast about the explosion of the global plant medicine community and the organization he founded. “Our success was partly due to us not being political,” he stated proudly. The host, Laura Dawn, expressed enthusiasm at this open-armed approach. What was intended as a positive statement sounded more like a yellow flag to those of us who have intersectional identities or are committed to anti-oppression as a life path.
Avoiding politics is only a real option for those who benefit from existing power structures. There’s no getting around the fact that our bodies are politicized. Our skin color is politicized. Our gender identities and sexualities are politicized. Policies are created and enforced every day around the world which oppress people who are not white, cis-gendered, upper class, citizens, or otherwise privileged. Policies are politics.
In countless ways, this power structure is reflected in the power structures within the psychedelics movement—not just when it comes to research and clinical trials, but also when we consider whose stories are told, heard and believed, whose wisdom is held in high regard, whose needs and interests are prioritized, who benefits and profits from the global expansion of the medicines, who is left barely surviving in the wake, and whose perspectives and ideals are broadcast on the panels, podcasts and webinars.
So, to hear a statement like, “This organization has done so well because we avoided being political; we welcome everyone,” feels at best like bypassing and lack of awareness, and at worst, a commitment to maintaining the appearance of peace, rather than a deep commitment to true healing justice. It is a statement that ignores the experiences of survivors of sexual assault and spiritual abuse, as well as groups who feel unsafe participating in psychedelics because of the very real harms and risks of the war on drugs.
It is a statement that overlooks marginalized groups whose lived experiences require a trauma-informed approach to care, which the average medicine practitioner, whether underground or in a clinical trial, may be unqualified or unwilling to provide. Simply put: if the psychedelic community professes to be inclusive, it must be unwaveringly committed to political change. Otherwise, inclusivity is nothing more than an illusion maintained to make folks on the inside feel comfortable.
These medicines can be catalysts for societal healing, but only if we are dedicated to the path of change and accountability. And yet, because our internal conditioning is so deep, so subconscious, if we do not dig in and do the daily, gritty work of uncovering our biases, we are prone to returning to the self-satisfying assumption that “Everything is fine for me, so everything must be fine.” This pattern is compounded because the majority of those who historically use psychedelics come from the dominant culture—the one that is accustomed to being in relative power and comfort.
Hot Take: Psychedelics Won’t Heal Our Society.
In reference to psychedelics, Terrence Mckenna famously said, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” Many interpret this statement to mean that we don’t need to exist in a psychedelic environment constantly—that these teachers have wisdom for us which is meant to be carried into our lives.
But… what if the message is in a language that you have never heard? What if you forget the message as soon as you hang up? What if the message is heavily influenced by your own worldview and sense of self?
For instance, what if mushrooms tell you that we are all interconnected and interdependent, but a few hours later you return to a reality in which your life of privilege is insulated from the realities of suffering around you-- how has that message transformed you?
The idea that the blast-off psychedelic experience of ego death cures people of their ego and self-absorption is false. Consider the man at the party, who had more direct experience blasting off with entheogens than most people I know. They may catalyze a fleeting new perspective, but without context, mentorship, or accountability, these messages are no different than an inspiring sermon which produces no lasting change in those who hear it.
We bring our whole selves into our experiences with psychedelics. The culture in which we are raised shapes our view of ourselves, the world, and others. There is no such thing as neutral. White, straight communities are subconsciously taught throughout life that they are the norm and communities with other backgrounds and identities are a deviation. Cis-gender white males are subconsciously taught that the decision-makers of the world should look like them. Uncomfortable issues like entitlement, privilege, fragility, and yes, white supremacy, are woven into the fabric of the psychedelic movement because it is made up of people who exist in and have been shaped by the paradigms and culture of the modern world.
It is a culture that values thinking over feeling.
It is a culture that values individual gain over collective wellbeing.
It is a culture that values short-term profit margins over precious life on earth.
It is a culture that values quick fixes and symptom suppression over the lifelong work of transformation.
It is a culture that tells us we can choose our own reality and mute the unpleasant realities of others.
It is a culture that is fundamentally shaped by the forces of capitalism and colonialism, which tells us that the way to achieve your most worthy individual end goal is to dominate over others at all costs.
Consider These Examples:
In 1955, banker R. Gordon Wasson took mushrooms for the first time with Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina and reported seeing lavish golden architecture. The mushrooms met his consciousness halfway and these visions were the result. Soon after, he revealed Maria Sabina’s identity and photos to a worldwide audience, despite her explicit instructions not to. He rose to fame as the person who “discovered” psilocybin mushrooms, whereas Maria Sabina was ostracized from her community, temporarily jailed, and her home was burned down.
Psychedelics don’t cure internalized entitlement to violate consent and take without permission or reciprocity.
Recently, Christian Angermeyer and George Goldsmith of Compass Pathways have begun attempting to monopolize psychedelic medicine by forcing it into a competitive capitalist model before their competitors. This is a paradigm that tells us that the way to achieve your individual end goal is to dominate over others at all costs, even if that cost is theft, exploitation or exclusion.
Regarding Compass Pathways, Angermeyer wrote the following to investors: “I also expect a starting differentiation between solid players in the psychedelics space—to be honest I really just see ATAI and Compass—and copycats. Most of these copycats miss one important thing: patents. Many psychedelic companies out there will never be able to bring a product to market, as they will hit the patents of Compass and Atai.”
Psychedelics don’t cure us of toxic capitalism.
Even well-intended mushroom advocate Paul Stamets owns three of the 24 existing patents on psilocybin. He also owns the world’s largest collection of ancient sacred Mayan mushroom stones (presumably by purchasing them), yet neither Stamets, nor any other psilocybin patent owner has extended acknowledgment, payment, or tangible reciprocity to the Mazatec people or others around the world by whom this knowledge of sacred mushrooms was preserved.
Psychedelics don’t cure us of lack of awareness, entitlement or implicit bias.
Indigenous communities around the world are living in poverty and facing oppression from their governments, while ayahuasca and psilocybin tourism outfits reap profits and Instagrammers create psychedelic coaching programs and appropriative lifestyle supply stores. Self-appointed neo-shamans sit in ayahuasca ceremony and come out believing they have been called to start their own retreat center, make a bunch of money, and “save the Amazon.”
Psychedelics won’t cure us of internalized white supremacy manifesting as white savior complex.
Overuse of vulnerable areas and growing tourism are causing severe ecological collapse, displacing indigenous peoples, and endangering the survival of the very plants we venerate.
Psychedelics won’t cure us of an extractive value system that tells us we are separate from the Earth and other living beings.
Allegations of sexual abuse and deep harm have been met with ambivalence, silencing and bypassing. From ayahuasca retreats in Peru to festival culture in the USA and beyond, sexual abuse in the psychedelic community continues to take place around the world. If we don’t face it head on and create systems for accountability, abusers will continue to harm people seeking guidance and help. It’s clear that plant medicines don’t magically make us value victims’ experiences or fiercely defend the rights of those who have been violated.
Psychedelics won’t cure us of patriarchy which values the reputations of men and people in power over the safety and healing of women and all survivors who have been harmed.
It’s not an overstatement to say we are in a critical moment as a species. The forces of modern culture have pushed us to the brink of collapse, causing irreversible damage to our planet, and threatening our own well-being and survival as a species. This is why psychedelic journeying and collaborative action across disciplines and cultures must go hand in hand.
Psychedelics are not necessarily about making us feel better about ourselves. Just as anti-oppression work is not about making people feel better about their positions of privilege. The overarching message of psychedelics is one of interconnection, and at the heart of the medicine, at the heart of the collective healing work before us, is complete liberation for all living beings. This is no small dream. This is why the daily work, true integration, must be the central focus of the psychedelic movement. Beyond psychedelic integration, let’s consider how we might combine disciplines: personal reflection, embodiment practices, creative expression, active involvement with our local communities (and not only psychedelic societies), time in nature, anti-oppression work, and a commitment to deep listening and compassionate discourse with people from different backgrounds.
Imagine a world in which psychedelic medicine is understood as one healing modality of many-- medicine that can help us return to responsible connection not only with ourselves, but our history, one another, and the Earth.
There lies before us an urgent and unprecedented opportunity to collaborate with psychedelics and plant medicines toward deep generational healing. But psychedelic experiences aren’t the end destination—they are the teachers. As students, we would be wise to keep them off of a pedestal. Healing is a long game, a lasting commitment. It is work. It is not just a peak experience of universal oneness—it requires a fundamental shift in the ways we think, listen, and make decisions. Today. Tomorrow. For the rest of our lives.
This ecosystem of personal practice and collective accountability is where the potential of psychedelics can really flourish. Instead of reflecting culture, plant medicine could help us to re-imagine it and re-create it. Perhaps it’s a culture that could organically make the rise of “corporadelics” irrelevant. Because while those committed to the current paradigms may construct ivory towers to insulate themselves, we with our feet on the earth have the collective power to shape something hopeful: a grounded and diverse movement devoted to healing as an interconnected process, not a profitable product. We have the opportunity to envision and create a global healing community that learns from past mistakes and fiercely upholds the pillars of collectivism, reciprocity, justice and accountability.
Rebecca Martinez is the Co-Founder of Fruiting Bodies Collective, a Portland, Oregon-based education community and podcast exploring the intersections of healing justice and the Psychedelic Renaissance.