“Not all drugs are good… some of them are great.” – the late great psychedelically attuned comedian Bill Hicks
After backpacking around North America and the Pacific for several years, searching in part for a more entheogenically aware community, I had settled down in Berkeley just as the tree sit protest was reaching its climatic peak. I was visiting the oak grove in question frequently in the summer of ’08, so a lot of the UCB students were away, but of those who remained on campus, I observed that most who walked by the longest running urban tree sit ever did so without giving it any attention whatsoever, acting like those in the tree and those supporting them on the sidewalks didn’t exist.
Was this a symptom of a student populace that felt, “Ho hum, another radical protest in crazy hippie Berkeley,” or was something else going on? So I asked one of the ground crew who was distributing flyers and pamphlets about the Oaks, “How many UCB students, out of ten, stopped by your table and informed themselves of engaged in dialogue about the latest news in the trees?” She looked at me sort of incredulously; “Your question should be more like how many out of a hundred or even a thousand, care to notice what is going on here.”
I was taken aback (as only a newly arrived East Coast transplant/outsider could be, I suppose): How had the legendary radical student activism of the 60s deteriorated to such an apathetic funk? That these students walked like zombies with blinders, uncaring, wasn’t something I could easily comprehend.
As the protest progressed, I visited the grove more and more, as well as the campus at large, talking with a diverse cross section of people, trying to find an answer to that question and to come to terms with it (though by this time I was developing a sneaking suspicion). Eventually, I came across an old-timer who was a student at UCB in the 60s, and he told me tales of those wild radical days of yore. He even drew parallels to the protests around People’s Park of that time; how the park was also surrounded by armed police and chain link cages, but on one coordinated day, the students banded together and united, tore the fucking fences down and reclaimed the Park for the People.
Where was that kind of radical student activism now, I asked. “Well, there was a war on then,” was the weak response, as if he was not ready to critique the blight of modern student apathy. There are wars on now; there has to be something else, I probed. He gave a couple of other minor ideas, but I got to the point. I believe that the main reason for the lack of student activism is the absence of a psychedelically and entheogenically informed student body (and mind and spirit).
… I remember hearing a story like this: In the height of the 60s, there was a pretty square but very gifted science and math student at UCB whose journey on the straight and narrow had put him at the top of his classes and fields of research. His routine of going from his dorm to the lab and back was occasionally interrupted by people with flowers in their long hair, marching in the streets with signs and banners, protesting something or other; it seemed to be a new cause every week. Finally, one day, upon seeing his lab occupied by students demanding justice or some such thing, he asked one of these long haired dudes (it was easier to visually identify the radicals back then) “So, what’s this all about anyway?” And in one of the more profound moments of hippie wisdom (top five, anyway), instead of proselytizing about Marxism or socialism etc, or shouting slogans at him, the long haired dude replied, “Here man, find out for yourself,” and handed him a tab of LSD.
Well, the student took the acid and in the course of a twelve hour psychedelic experience, things like social justice, power to the people, nature’s splendor (etc to infinity) no longer were abstract concepts to him, but felt realities. The walls of culture promoting plastic conformity dissolved to open up to the colorful organic interconnected beauty of the world and universe at large. And far from toeing the unofficial hippie party line, when this student turned on, he used what he had tuned into to propel his scientific studies into new stratospheres of theories, eventually making him a world renowned scholar.
This kind of experience was repeated millions of times to millions of people and was the catalyst of revolutionary times, I believe. The flashing headline point then would have to be: Nature is Alive, and psychedelics (particularly entheogens) help you realize this in rather profound ways in the course of life changing visionary epiphanies, in the space of mere hours. A psychedelically enlightened mind can not continue to close its eyes (all three of them) to the destruction of the earth, the razing of our forests, the poisoning of our seas, and the influence of over two thousand years of unchecked dominator culture which uses hegemony, monotheism, monotony and monogamy as honed weapons of mass suppression and destruction of the free people of the planet.
Entheogens are our birthright, yet this most important rite of passage has not been passed down effectively to today’s students, to the sorrow of the world and the apathy of youth who do not know any better because the language of the dream hasn’t been spoken to them.
The use of psychedelics and the way they have been expressed culturally has fluctuated plenty in the past forty or so years, but to my mind, even the youth at the height of the “Just Say No” era in the 80s didn’t have such a profound disconnect to psychedelic awareness as do students today. In the 80s and 90s, the use of these plants and chemicals became more socially discreet, but their influence and impact were profoundly felt worldwide: specifically in the field of computers. Ralph Abraham, a mathematics professor at UCB and UCSC in the 60s turned on quite a number of his colleagues and students to LSD, and whose own experiments with DMT led him to be a leading developer in the fields of chaos math and dynamical systems theory for decades saw first hand how the use of some certain mind expanding substances inspired many in the computer and software industry. He describes a tale of a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner in the early 90s set off to disprove Timothy Leary’s theory of psychedelics interconnectivity with the burgeoning field: “She went to Siggraph, the largest gathering of computer graphic professionals in the world, where annually somewhere in the United States 30,000 who are vitally involved in the computer revolution gather. She thought she would set this heresy to rest by conducting a sample survey, beginning her interviews at the airport the minute she stepped off the plane. By the time she got back to her desk in San Francisco she’d talked to 180 important professionals of the computer graphic field, all of whom answered yes to the question, ‘Do you take psychedelics, and is this important in your work?’” —Ralph Abraham, In “The Evolutionary Mind—Trialogues at the Edge of the Unthinkable” by Rupert Sheldrake, Terence McKenna, and Ralph Abraham, 1998)
Yet as the years passed, the discreet underground psychedelic culture of the 90s became more and more unknown. The Rave Generation’s message of ecstatic dancing harmony and PLUR (Peace Love Unity Respect) has, due in part by the passing of some harsh anti-rave legislation in the past decade, now largely been assimilated by boozy nightclub ass-grabbing hookups. Burning Man (where the leading psychedelic scholars, artists, writers and all-around proponents of entheogens have presentations within the city), every year becomes more and more watered down by hipsters and tourists who want to play freak for a week and not engage in radical community possibilities.
All is not lost. The most psychedelic mainstream piece of art I’ve seen recently is the movie Avatar. The film captured not only the apex of where computer generated art has taken us, but combined that with a moving entheogen inspired story with epic themes of nature versus avarice. A Burning Man acquaintance of mine whom I saw the picture with jokingly made the comment, “Man, I wish I saw that movie on mushrooms!” Having just reacquainted myself with an old ally, cannabis, specifically for viewing Avatar after a long break, I found the synergy of the herb, the film, and myself an amazing otherworldly experience, I kind of scoffed at my friend’s remark. “I don’t know what kind of experiences you have, but when I have a committed mushroom experience, screw watching it in a theater; I AM Avatar! I’m on Pandora, taking that journey, feeling the epic themes of unbridled corporate/military greed versus nature and Her allies, reverberating through my entire being.”
In fact, I saw (and see) Avatar as an ayahuasca parable. The trees of the soul on Pandora, the vines of the soul in the Amazon where ayahuasca originates, the tribal consciousness and the aforementioned themes (not to mentioned the kaleidoscope of fluorescent colors and the 3D were nice touches/parallels) were all so prevalent in my ayahuasca journeys, I knew that writer/director James Cameron was giving the world more than a wink and a nod to the most powerful entheogenic tea. Terence McKenna, a psychedelic pioneer, had this to say about it years ago: “In the Amazon and other places where visionary plants are understood and used, you are conveyed into worlds that are appallingly different from ordinary reality. Their vividness cannot be stressed enough. They are more real than real, and that’s something that you sense intuitively. They establish an ontological priority. They are more real than real, and once you get that under your belt and let it rattle around in your mind, then the compass of your life begins to spin and you realize that you are not looking in on the Other; the Other is looking in on you.” That sounds a lot like what Cameron was trying to convey with the Navi on the living planet Pandora. And this is all but confirmed with the director’s latest activism. Cameron recently traveled to the jungles of the Amazon River and met with the indigenous tribal leaders and proclaimed his solidarity with the peoples in their fight against the Brazilian government and corporate interests in building a dam that would effectively destroy them, which mirrors the plight of the Navi in his film.
It’s more than just a case of art reflecting nature; the themes should be becoming more and more obvious to our counter-culture. To this end, I’m holding a space via the East Bay Free Skool, facilitating a weekly discussion to help continue espousing these ideas, namely that the realities reflected in Avatar (and in so many other fine works of art) are available to all of us, if not but for a cultural convention that would have us passively consume light beer and blue jeans. So that the next time students see activists living in trees, fighting for the survival of nature, instead of being apathetic to it, they can personally feel the themes and be more connected to that struggle. Ergoat email@example.com