First published on 4 Oct 2012. Updated on 11 Oct 2012.
Graham, during the Origins of Consciousness symposium and workshop on Sunday, October 14, you’ll posit that sacramental psychoactive plants were the catalyst for the development of the modern human mind.
What I’m proposing is that the deliberate induction of altered states of consciousness -- trance states quite distinct from the alert problem-solving states of consciousness used for hunting and other day-to-day survival activities – were the catalyst for the development of the modern human mind. Ancient hunter-gatherer cultures universally developed “technologies” for inducing these altered states of consciousness and in many parts of the world these “technologies” were based on extensive knowledge and use of psychoactive plants.
But where intensely psychoactive plants were not available, or not discovered – and Australia may be an example of that – other “technologies” were used to achieve the desired altered states of consciousness, for example, fasting, sensory deprivation (e.g. in deep caves, meditation, rhythmic dancing, etc, etc). This was the case amongst the San bushmen of South Africa, where shamans used rhythmic dancing around a blazing fire to induce trance states, and I think it was likely true of the Aboriginal culture of Australia as well. To my regret, however, I have not yet had the opportunity to study Australia’s First Peoples closely. This is a gap in my knowledge that I hope to remedy in the future.
Are there any interesting minds you’re looking forward to meeting on this visit?
Mitch Schultz and I are friends and made an extraordinary journey together in Utah last year. I'm looking forward to catching up. I’ve been a long-term admirer of Dennis McKenna’s work and am looking forward very much to meeting him for the first time on this trip. Coincidentally he and I will be together again in January at an Ayahuasca retreat in Brazil so I’ll have the opportunity to extend the acquaintance there. I've just heard that I will be having dinner with Rak Razam and Dan Shreiber near Byron Bay as well as meeting them on the panel at Brisbane and am very much looking forward to that. And of course there are so many other interesting people I’m looking forward to meeting! This is only my second visit to Australia – the first was a very rushed book tour in 1996 – and I’m hoping to get to know many bright, intelligent, questioning, adventurous souls.
What about psychoactive plants in Australia that warrant further study?
As noted above, Australia has been off my research radar but after this trip I hope new avenues of inquiry will open up. I know next to nothing about Australian psychoactive plants. I’ve smoked DMT (dimethyltryptamine) about a dozen times and on most of those occasions I was told it had been derived – through some complicated chemical process -- from an Australian species of Acacia.
You’re a very respected journalist exploring the sort of domains often associated with fringe dwellers and conspiracy theorists. What are people’s common misconceptions about who you are and what you do?
People think I’m a freemason, and I’m not. People think I believe the end of the world is coming on 21 December 2012, and I don’t. Someone on my YouTube channel recently accused me of promoting the view that Obama “is doing all his crazy stuff to get the energy field up to save the world.” I’ve never promoted that view and am deeply disappointed with Obama. Many people say I believe aliens built the pyramids. I don’t. In fact I’m not a supporter of the “ancient alien” hypothesis at all. I think a lost human civilization is a much better explanation the mysteries and paradoxes of ancient cultures. I see myself as a journalist reporting neglected stories about our past and trying to bring rigor, reason and intuition to the quest.
Are there any countries or regions you’re keen to roam next, in the name of research?
Australia, definitely. And Turkey for the amazing, 12,000-year-old megalithic site of Gobekli Tepe. It just comes out of nowhere and the oldest stuff there is the best.
Was there a pivotal point in your life at which time you thought, I want to study altered states of consciousness?
Yes, 2002 when I started to research what I thought would be a book about human origins and discovered that the most interesting moment in the six million years of boredom between the last common ancestor with the chimpanzee and the emergence of anatomically modern humans was less than 40,000 years ago when the first great cave and rock art began to be created. From there it was a short hop to discovering that the best academic theory of the universal features of the cave paintings is that they were work of shamans depicting visions seen in altered states of consciousness. Then I learnt that there are still shamans in the Amazon today who drink the visionary brew Ayahuasca to enter what they construe as the spirit world and who make paintings of their visions when they return to everyday consciousness.
I’ve always believed I should put myself into my work and directly investigate the subjects I’m writing about, rather than just sitting in an armchair and reading, so it was a no-brainer that I had to go to the Amazon and drink Ayahuasca with shamans there. My experiences with the sacred brew were so powerful, and so convincing of the existence of other levels of reality that surround us all the time but are normally invisible to our senses, that I knew I had to go further. I’ve had more than 40 Ayahuasca journeys since then and experimented with many other visionary substances as well. What I’ve learnt is that I still have a lot to learn. It truly is an unknown country out there.
What are your thoughts on forums like Bluelight and Erowid – where people discuss the best way to source and consume psychoactive drugs, and compare experiences?
Very valuable. A new form of electronic shamanism that technological civilisations are badly in need of. We have severed our connection to the ancient sacred traditions, and lost millennia of knowledge about the powers of visionary plants. These forums are helping us, piece by piece, to put the jigsaw together again.
What are you always getting asked at dinner parties?
“What’s this Ayahuasca stuff you’re always going on about?” When I tell them it makes you vomit and give you diarrhea before it lets you see visions they usually change the subject.
What are you reading at the moment?
Fiction: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Non-fiction: Letters from Mexico, by Hernan Cortes.