21 Questions for 2020: #5

5. Can sacred plant medicine help us overcome our alienation from the wisdom of Mother Nature, which we so need in this troubled time? 

As philosophers like Jeremy Lent and Andreas Weber have shown, when we humans became agriculturalists, we established dominion over land and animals, and women became property; the patriarchal religions taught human supremacy, a rigid hierarchical way of thinking about our place in Nature that was carried over into the modern religion of Science. 

Scientific philosophers like Francis Bacon and Charles Darwin reinforced the separation from Nature, not only in the human relationship to the outer world, but also within ourselves. Our “lower nature” was to be banished (a theory that dovetailed nicely with Christian ideas of sin and hell), while our intellect was exalted.

The so-called Enlightenment, with its accompanying savage colonialism and the spread of corporate capitalism, sealed the deal, setting up the fatal oppositions of Light/Dark, Mind/Matter, Man/Woman, Human/Animal, Culture/Nature, and establishing them so deeply in every human endeavor that for a long time we weren’t even aware of how they were conditioning our way of life on the planet and driving us down the road to ruin. 

Fortunately there have always been some stubborn independent thinkers who have refused to be indoctrinated into this way of thinking: indigenous peoples, pagans, artists, so-called geniuses—ordinary people who are open to new ideas. Many have worked in quiet obscurity. But every so often we get a genius like Einstein or Jung, who gives us a great leap forward, helping us see our selves and our world in a new way. 

In these early years of the 21st century, such independent thinkers are few and far between. But there has been a sudden resurgence of interest in the wisdom offered by “sacred plant medicine,” which has been used for millennia as a sacrament among those scattered tribes that successfully resisted the onslaught of colonialism and managed to hold on to their age-old religions and customs. 

The late psychonaut Terence McKenna posited that sacred plants were basis for the Christian “tree of knowledge” in the Garden of Eden. In the Christian myth, humans were expelled from the Garden when their thirst for knowledge grew too great. But all over the world, many other people kept right on eating that apple—i.e., consuming the sacred plants and learning to work with the psychic insights and healing power they provided. 

McKenna goes so far as to hypothesize that the collective psychosis of the modern western world is a result of our outlawing, in the 20th century, open access to sacred plants like psilocybin mushrooms and cannabis. This goes along with some other major 20th century decisions that turned out to have serious negative consequences: investing in sugar, alcohol, oil, gas and cars, for example, rather than in healthier alternatives. 

Modern capitalism runs on speed and efficiency. The system needs us to be productive workers; we can’t be opting out and taking time for psychic explorations. We can get drunk on Saturday nights, as long as we’re sober in time for work on Monday. Most people limit their focus on the divine to a quick bow in church on Sunday mornings; and there is no time anymore for the lengthy explorations of psychoanalysis—just take a Prozac and get on with it, honey. 

But how many of us are satisfied by this workaday world? We are not ants or termites—we know ourselves to be more than simply drones. We want to understand more deeply who we are, why we are here, and how we can make our lives a positive offering to the world. 

Sacred plant medicine reminds us that we are not just cogs in the superficial capitalist wheel; that there is more to life than accumulation of wealth and the selfish pursuit of pleasure. 

Over and over, people who have tried plant medicine report back versions of the same message of divine unity: we are the world, and the world is love. That was the mantra of the 1960s psychedelic generation, and it’s coming back around again in the 21st century, in a world that has only gotten more hostile and alienating during the intervening years. 

The powers that be are threatened by this message because it challenges the philosophical basis of capitalist civilization: the idea of our “God-given right” to dominion over the natural world. If we are all one, how can we continue to turn Mother Earth and her children into commodities, to be prostituted, bought and sold?

Plant medicine is emerging widely in the U.S. and other western nations because we so desperately need its wisdom now. Unlike alcohol, which numbs us and puts us to sleep, psychedelics wake us up—and this is a time when we need to be awake, alert, and cognizant of our potential to take an evolutionary leap forward and survive…or watch our civilization collapse, like so many others before. 

Psychedelics synthesize the wisdom of eastern philosophy, quantum theory and depth psychology, showing us in a visceral, direct way that reality is perceptual; that matter is energy; and that on an energetic level, everything is interconnected. Sacred plant medicines allow us to perceive the multiverses of the quantum, and voyage in the spiritual landscapes that open up in our psyches, beyond time and space. 

Science has refused to embrace full implications of quantum theory, and Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, accessed through the dream world, has given way to “cognitive neuroscience,” which ignores the psyche in its focus on the brain. But slowly the ripples are spreading out from the first few western plant medicine adventurers, like Terence McKenna and John Perkins, who learned from wise indigenous shamans about love as a force of nature, and brought this wisdom back to their western tribes.

Indigenous wisdom keepers have kept this sacred knowledge alive through the dark times that began with the so-called “Enlightenment”: the long period of alienating monotheism and capitalist, extractivist science and industry. Now, knowing that the suicidal tendencies of western civilization threaten to bring the entire planet into a massive evolutionary reset, they are offering plant medicine to westerners as a gateway to sanity and a livable future.

The Bioneers tagline points to the word LOVE hidden in the word REVOLUTION. Revolution also means a turn of the wheel, a new cycle. In the 21st century, will we have the courage to step boldly into what Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects calls the “new and ancient story” that teaches us of the interconnection of All That Is? 

It remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: this is a revolutionary time. It is not a time to be timid. 

21 Questions for 2020: #2

  1. How can we draw on the positive aspects of the human propensity to tribalism?

In these early years of the 21st century, we are talking a lot about how our sense of community has become fractured, or even “polarized,” meaning that people have retreated into opposing ideological camps that are pitted against each other for dominance, influence and power. 

Looking into history we can see that this is a common pattern for humans; we seem to gravitate towards social relationships based on in-groups that depend on out-groups for their social cohesion. This was as true among the pre-colonial indigenous tribes of the Americas and Africa as it was for the warlords of early modern Europe. 

Within the in-groups, in the past we seemed to have naturally formed clans based on family ties, with careful rules governing marriages that prevented too much inbreeding. In patriarchal societies, girls and women became property to be bartered and sold in marriage. Boys were trained as the heirs. 

Today, in the United States at least, we live with an uncomfortable mixture of these ancient social practices and the new nuclear family anomie. We still have in-groups and out-groups, but in our widely diverse society they are based on differences like race, ethnicity and religion, as well as class and social customs. 

Women may no longer be bartered and sold in marriage, but we still wield less social power and command less respect than men. There is a lot of physical and sexual abuse of women and children going on today, the isolation of the nuclear family leaving women and children without ancient sources of clan and tribal support. 

In an every-person- (or at least every-small-family) for-themselves world, we face a crisis of isolation that manifests in: 

  • the turn to intoxication (the opioid crisis); 
  • the rise of online groups demanding ideological allegiance (the far-right white supremacists); 
  • the acting out of blind rage at a hostile world (the mass shooting epidemic); 
  • the self-destructive turning inward of rage and frustration (the anxiety/depression/eating disorder/cutting/suicide crisis); 
  • and people constantly crashing through the frayed social safety net, leading to the ever-growing legions of homeless encampments and prisons.

In short, we live in a grim world. 

Is it worse than in the past? All of the elements I’ve mentioned above have always been present, at least in the recent history of the dominant western culture that has given rise to the present-day USA. Scrooge’s famous 19thcentury line when confronted with poverty, “Are there no workhouses?” could be said irascibly by any number of wealthy social conservatives today, starting with the tycoon currently in the White House. 

What those tycoons would prefer that we don’t realize a rather simple truth: that today in America, there is enough wealth to feed, clothe and house every citizen. There is enough money to create new eco-friendly housing, agricultural and transportation systems. There is plenty of wealth to rethink and renew our educational systems, adapting to the current reality of the 21st century. 

The wealth is there. The problem is that it’s being hoarded by a few individuals and their families; and what’s left in the public treasury is being disproportionately funneled into the military industrial complex, which increases the wealth of these few individuals and families, who control the industries. 

That’s capitalism at work in a society governed by fear, greed and corruption.

I am well aware that there was never a rosy golden age of humanity, when we all sang songs together around the campfire and made love, not war. I know that there are bonafide evil types out there against whom defenses must be erected. 

However, in this day and age, the evil is erupting within our own borders. We have a president who calls white supremacist thugs “very fine people” and thinks nothing of tearing babies from their parents’ arms and putting them in cages. This is happening now, in our America. 

And there is much more cruelty going on, less visibly: the dismantling of the food security system for the poor; the debt bondage of college and graduate students; the radical, perpetual insecurity of the gig economy; the outrageous over-pricing of the health care system, sending sick people into bankruptcy. Not to mention the rampant destruction of the natural world. 

Those who want to succeed in this society—‘success’ measured as earning enough money to keep your own family secure—must turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. A hardening of the heart is necessary, simply in order to function in this cold, cut-throat society. 

It is very possible that everything I’ve described above is only going to get worse as the 21st century progresses. The squeeze on individuals will produce more outward- and inward-facing anger and despair, leading to more violence and suicides; there will be more repression in the form of “workhouses”: prisons and detention camps, and schools that resemble these more and more. It’s possible that the natural world will continue to be trashed, leading to the massive destabilization of the climate that will bring us all down.

But I want to give myself permission to dream of a different future, building on the positive aspects of our propensity to tribalism. 

Let us imagine a world where the wealth that is provided for us by our Mother Earth is fairly divided among all her children, including the more-than-human world who have just as much right as humans to live a good life. 

Let us imagine a world where the weak are cared for by the strong. Where laws fairly protect everyone, including Gaia herself. Where nurturing is valued as highly as warring, and children are raised to be responsible stewards of the world around them, instead of takers and destroyers. 

I imagine that people will continue to gravitate together based on family clans, geographic and cultural bonds, and/or ideological affinity, just as we have in the past. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as we can overcome repressive customs, such as the subordination of women, along with the tendency to enrich ourselves at the expense of others. 

The Earth and the Sun freely offer enough energy and material resources to support all of us. What’s needed is a new social system for equitable distribution and protection of those who are currently being left out in the cold and abused, including our four-legged, winged and finned relations. 

Can we imagine a new tribalism for the 21st century, with a tent and a net big enough to support us all? 

And can we move swiftly from imagining it to making it happen, at least in our own corners of the world? 

%d bloggers like this: