Why Can't We Cope with Ecstasy...?

 from Proemium from Jonathan Ott's Pharmacotheon

The essence of the experience conferred by entheogenic drugs is ecstasy, in the original sense of that overused word, ek-stasis, the "withdrawal of the soul from the body" (Oxford English Dictionary), what R. Gordon Wasson called the "disembodied" state:

There I was, poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen.

(Wasson  1957)

More specifically, it is an ineffable, spiritual state of grace, in which the universe is experienced more as energy than as matter (Ott 1977); a spiritual, non-materialistic state of being (Hofmann 1988). It is the heart and essence of shamanism; the archetypal religious experience. In the archaic world, and in the preliterate cultures which have survived in isolation into our time, shamanism and ecstasy represent the epitome of culture, the pinnacle of human achievement (Calvin 1991). The shaman is the cynosure of her or his preliterate tribe, (s)he is the thau-maturge, the psychopompos, the archetypal psychonaut journeying to the Otherworld to intercede with the ancestors or gods on behalf of her or his fellows. In the Age of Entheogens (Wasson 1980), in the archaic world, which still lives on in Amazonia and elsewhere, "every thing that lives is Holy," as William Blake expressed it, especially the living, breathing, planetary biosphere, of which we are an integral part, and holiest of all are the wondrous entheogens, imbued with spirit power. Modern western culture has no official place for the entheogens precisely because it has no place for ecstasy. Dedicated, as we are, to treating the universe as matter, not as energy or spirit (Blake wrote that "Energy is Eternal Delight"), it embarrasses us to be reminded that our planet is alive and that every place is a sacred place.

Even our western religions with their vestiges of entheogenic plant lore (the ever-present "Tree of Life" with its entheogenic fruit; - Ott 1979; Wasson et al. 1986) have forgotten their roots and worship symbols, knowing not the experience to which the symbols refer. As Joseph Campbell paraphrased Jung: "religion is a defense against the experience of God" (Campbell 1988). It is as though people were worshipping the decorations and hardware on a door - the portal to the Otherworld (Schele & Freidel 1990) - having lost the key to open it; having forgotten even that it is a door, and its threshold is meant to be crossed; knowing not what awaits on the Other Side. In the Judeo-Christian heritage, a horrendous duality has been imposed; the Divine is the Other, apart from humankind, which is born in sin. Despite overwhelming scientific and experiential evidence to the contrary, human beings are conceived of as a special creation apart from other animals, and we are enjoined to subdue the world, which is matter. This horrible superstition has led to the despoiling and ruin of our biosphere, and to the crippling neurosis and guilt of modern people (Hofmann 1980). I call this a superstition because when people have direct, personal access to entheogenic, religious experiences, they never conceive of humankind as a separate creation, apart from the rest of the universe. "Every thing that lives is Holy," us included, and the divine infuses all the creation of which we are an integral part. As the dualistic superstition took root in our ancestors' minds, their first task was to destroy all aspects of ecstatic, experiential religion from the archaic ("pagan") world. The destruction of the sanctuary of Eleusis at the end of the fourth century of our era (Mylonas 1961) marked the final downfall of the ancient world in Europe, and for the next millennium the theocratic Catholic Church vigorously persecuted every vestige of ecstatic religion which survived, including revival movements. By the time of the "discovery" of the New World, Europe had been beaten into submission, the "witches" and "heretics" mostly burned, and ecstasy was virtually expunged from the memory of the survivors. For the Catholics, and for the Protestants after them, to experience ecstasy, to have religious experiences, was the most heinous heresy, justifying torture and being burned alive. Is it any wonder that today we have no place for ecstasy?

In the New World, however, the Age of Entheogens and ecstasy lived on, and although in 1620 the Inquisition in Mexico formally declared the use of entheogenic plants like peyotl (see Chapter 1) to be heresy and the Church vigorously extirpated this use and tortured and executed Indian shamans, ecstasy survives there even now. It bears witness to the integrity of the New World Indians that they braved torture and death to continue with their ecstatic religion- they must have been bitterly disappointed in the "placebo sacrament" of the Christian Eucharist, which is a placebo entheogen (Ott 1979) - and it is largely as a result of the modern rediscovery of the shamanic cult of teonanacatl (see Chapter 5) by R. Gordon Wasson in Mexico in 1955 that the modern use of entheogens, in many respects a revival of ecstatic religion, began. Even though myriad justifications for the modern laws against the entheogens have been offered up, the problem modern societies have with these drugs is fundamentally the same problem the Inquisition had with them, the same problem the early Christians had with the Eleusinian Mysteries - religious rivalry. Since these drugs tend to open people's eyes and hearts to an experience of the holiness of the universe... yes, enable people to have personal religious experiences without the intercession of a priesthood of the preconditioning of a liturgy, some psychonauts or epoptes will perceive the emptiness and shallowness of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition; even begin to see through the secular governments which use religious symbols to manipulate people; begin to see that by so ruthlessly subduing the earth we are killing the planet and destroying ourselves. A "counterculture" having ecstatic experiences in California is quite as subversive (Einhorn 1970) and threatens the power structures in Sacramento or Washington just as much as the rebellious Albigensians or Cathars, Bogomiles, Fraticelli "de opinione," Knights Templar and Waldenisians threatened the power structure in Rome and Mediaeval times (Cohn 1975).