Ayahuasca, Alex Grey and the Second Coming of Psychedelics

Photo by Chamberlain

Fifty years after the flowering of psychedelic culture first blossomed in San Francisco, scientific research and spiritual exploration into the mysteries and medicinal uses of mind-altering substances have once again taken root.

Consciousness-raising compounds like psilocybin, the stuff that gives magic mushrooms their magic, and MDMA, better known as Ecstasy, are finally emerging from the counterculture and turning up in the laboratories of some of the nation’s leading universities, where scientists and psychotherapists are probing their therapeutic properties and healing powers. Advances in neuroscience and in new imaging technology have enabled researchers to map the psychedelic brain in real time, deepening our understanding of human consciousness.

Some of this research into the beneficial uses of LSD, mescaline and psilocybin dates back to the 1950s and early ’60s, before it was interrupted by a political backlash against the perceived excesses of the hippie counterculture. That halted the advance of psychedelic science for most of the 1980s and ’90s, but to quote this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, the times, they are a-changin’—again.

In 2017, two of the organizations leading the second psychedelic revolution will begin a final round of government-approved clinical trials with hundreds of patients suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder, depression, substance abuse or severe anxiety, who will participate in psychotherapy sessions fueled by MDMA and psilocybin. The scientists and donors affiliated with these two organizations, the Heffter Research Institute and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), hope to bring these psychoactive compounds out of the research lab and into the medical mainstream.

Meanwhile, a new generation of spiritual seekers has rediscovered the transformative power of psychedelic plants. Holding center stage in this shamanic revival is ayahuasca, a bitter-tasting beverage brewed from two plants native to the Amazon basin. In the United States, the ayahuasca gospel is being preached on two fronts. The first is through an underground network of teachers trained by shamanic healers in Peru and elsewhere. The second is a missionary movement launched by a pair of Brazilian churches that use ayahuasca in their religious rites. They have established congregations in the United States that, under the limited protection of a 2006 Supreme Court ruling, can legally dispense this psychedelic communion.

Advocates for both the therapeutic and spiritual use of psychedelics are already celebrating the start of the “post-prohibition era.” That party may be a bit premature, but the government crackdown on scientific research and even the personal use of these drugs has certainly lessened over the past decade.

Thanks to the gradual, state-by-state decriminalization of medical marijuana, followed by full legalization in some states, marijuana has served as a model for the changing attitudes and public policies regarding psilocybin, MDMA and similar substances. However, many psychonauts aren’t waiting for government permission: A rising number of consciousness explorers—including many in Silicon Valley—have begun experimenting with microdosing, taking subliminal or near-subliminal amounts of LSD or psilocybin in an effort to foster creativity and improve cognitive function.

Psychedelic plants and chemicals are not for everyone. They affect different people in different ways, depending in large part on one’s intention and the setting in which they’re taken. But often, sometimes in subtle and other times in dramatic ways, they inspire wonder and awe, providing the heightened insight and sense of profound meaning that one may also experience in dreams or religious exaltation. Half a century after the Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In—the event that kick-started the Summer of Love—took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967, we can once again envision a not-so-distant future where psychedelics will be safely, sanely and legally brought back into our lives.

One place to learn more about the second coming of psychedelics is the new book Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters With the Amazon’s Sacred Vine, a highly informative compendium by a variety of researchers, shamans, seekers, artists and scholars, and featuring an extensive gallery of works by ayahuasca-inspired artists, including Alex Grey, whose chapter and art are excerpted here. 

Don Lattin is a San Francisco–based journalist and the bestselling author of The Harvard Psychedelic Club. His latest book, Changing Our Minds: Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy, will be published this spring by Synergetic Press. For more information, go to www.donlattin.com.

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