New Religions Religion and Media

Entheogens, Spirituality, and Modern Myths

The following is the first of a three-part series.

Introduction: Alice and Entheogens

My aim here is to analyze spiritual phenomena using contemporary mythological and pop-cultural referents, such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), and The Matrix. Using these texts as interpretive mediums, I hope to deepen the reader’s insights about various aspects and meanings of the phenomena under question. Using narrative structures as analytical aides is useful insofar as they permit in situ examinations of New Age beliefs and reveals how they work discursively.

In other words, the stories provide a dynamic narrative context, analogous to the kinds of terrain in which spirituality beliefs are formed and operate. This analysis is phenomenological in nature to the degree that it necessitates an examination of narrative structures which animate and disclose types of subjectivity and meaning structures among my study participants. At basis it involves deconstructing themes taken from their texts, ones related to my study participant’s beliefs, practices, and experiences. It involves moreover identifying points of contact that exist between these sets of discourses, noting where they overlap and disagree.

Because they appeared spontaneously during the course of my interviews, I chose to utilize the Alice in Wonderland stories created by Lewis Carroll as a medium for understanding the phenomenological and subjective nature of new spirituality seekership. The Alice texts serve as devices for examining and interpreting the popular discourses that permeate these subcultures. My study includes an analysis of spirituality concepts and beliefs, as well as bona fide mythological forms that, while having some relation to religious myths, exist in a class by themselves.

Meaning-making among my study participants is explored, which involves how beliefs are created and maintained, and how plausibility structures operate. Of particular significance to the Alice stories is something my informants refer to as ‘psychonautics’, a term that derives from ‘astronaut’. However, instead of exploring outer space, the psychonaut journeys into the recesses of their own psyche, via entheogenic substances such as peyote, ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms or lsd. These are specially sought-after forms of subjectivity that individuals seek out, usually within the context of shamanistic ceremonial rituals, that are based in part on hallucinogenic experiences.

Contemporary studies of Lewis Carroll’s Alices involve everything from mathematical treatises on logic and game theory to specialized analyses of its poetry, folklore, and relations to quest literature. The works have been reviewed so thoroughly that Hélène Cixous claims we have reached the point where, “to be honest, the territory [Carroll’s texts] is so well studied, its stratifications uncovered in every direction, that it seems bold or even impossible “to add” anything”. (231) Perhaps it is true that Carroll’s critics have run the full gamut of interpretive possibilities. However, aside from being the theme of a psychedelic song “White Rabbit” written by Jefferson Airplane in the mid-1960s, I am unaware of any reference that seeks to connect the Alice narratives specifically with those of modern experimental religions.

Books such as Alice in Acidland have attempted to relate 1960s psychedelic culture to its story elements. But they do not explore either religious or spiritual themes in connection with them, and so remain superficial analyses of altered psychological states. The present study also references some of the common subjective states individuals experience while using psychedelics. Let it be clear from the outset, however, that my analysis will not include a comprehensive history or review of hallucinogens and their effects.

Those books have already been written (e.g. Gordon Wasson’s The Road to Eleusis, 1978; Terrance McKenna’s Food of the Gods, 1992; Koral’s White Rabbit, 1995; and Schlain & Lee’s Acid Dreams, 1992). But I will during the course of the analysis provide readers with some background information on the subject, in addition to participant’s personal accounts where needed.  But before launching into mythological interpretations of my subject’s psychedelic experiences, it is necessary to have a brief discussion about new spiritualities to ground readers in this subculture.

Introduction to New Spiritualities

Anyone setting out to study new spirituality immediately becomes aware of the difficulties involved with defining it. Enigmatic, elusive, diffuse, variegated, indeterminate, and pluralistic represent just some of the terms that researchers have used to refer to this phenomenon (Kemp, 2004; Sutcliffe, 2003; Shimazono, 1999; Raschke, 1996). Not only do groupings like ‘New Age’ defy classification, it is also often difficult to determine exactly what is being studied due to its chameleon-like nature.

It changes frequently, it is always morphing into new forms, it is faddish, and yet it contains traditional religious elements that have remained unchanged for thousands of years. Are new spiritualities social movements, or are they bona fide religion? Is it postmodern or atavistic, secular or post-secular, countercultural, or a commodification of the traditional? For William Bloom, New Age spirituality is something which “gives us maps, insights, friends, techniques, inspiration and strength in our exploration of the inner world.” (xviii) In her book Aquarian Conspiracy, social historian Marilyn Ferguson asserts that it is nothing less than the zeitgeist of the times: The spirit of our age is fraught with paradox. (18)

It is at the same time pragmatic and transcendental. It values both enlightenment and mystery, power and humility, interdependence and individuality. It is simultaneously political and apolitical. Within recent history it has infected medicine, education, social science, hard science, even government with its implications.

It is characterized by fluid organizations reluctant to create hierarchical structures, averse to dogma. It operates on the principle that change can only be facilitated, not decreed. It is short on manifestos. It seems to speak to something very old. And perhaps, by integrating magic and science, art and technology, it will succeed where all the king’s horses and all the king’s men failed.

It would be difficult to classify New Age spirituality as a social movement in the usual sense, i.e. as being politically contentious, or concerned with goals involving member recruitment, or of rationally exploiting economic opportunities. Nevertheless, countercultural spirituality meets the conditions of a “fluid social movement” through acts of dissension, and flight away from mainstream social controls. (23)

It is involved with challenging cultural codes and their members are often identifiable as New Agers. Also, by engaging in antidogmatic discourse and practices, New Ageism is opposing what is perceived to be a hyper-rationalized and materialistic mainstream society. Wini Breines defines this aspect of New Left politics as a “refusal of the rules,” or to compromise in conventional political ways which prescribes that social change must occur within a formal rationality, as instrumental politics. (5)

For some New Agers it amounts to a rejection of Enlightenment rationalism in exchange for a trans-rational understanding of nature and social relations. As a result, New Age idealism is often criticized for being politically ineffective, or withdrawn (Steyn, 1994) by not being overtly political or class based. However, due to these structural factors, this form of social movement is not as easily co-opted by mainstream power holders, and according to Jon Bloch makes it “a stronger collective voice of repudiation against rational society”. (23)

Alberto Melucci argues that social and political conflicts no longer have winners, but may produce innovation, modernization, and reform. (78) Rather than defeating their opposition, such as environmentalist groups vs. transnational corporations, new social movements (NSMs) like elements of the New Age, may initiate institutional changes by innovating new forms of culture. One of the ways this occurs is through the creation of collective identities in movement groups.

Identity formation fosters an awareness among social actors of the ability to work on motivational and biological structures, as opposed to the world which was the focus of activist objectives within previous cycles of social movements. (94) In this way, NSMs are self-reflexive through being engaged in identity work, that is not instrumental to a further end, such as securing particular economic or political rights, as in the ERA (equal rights amendment), but is meaningful in itself, and relates to new spiritualities insofar as both are concerned with personal and social transformation. This offers the possibility for symbolic challenges to be made against mainstream opponents, which may work to ultimately overturn dominant cultural codes. (94)

For Stephen Sutcliffe, the New Age is not so much a social movement as it is an overlapping of various social milieu, that he describes as a “bricolage of more or less interchangeable practices and values given focus by an ambiguous eschatological emblem”. (4) Karel Dobbelaere agrees, characterizing New Age spirituality as an idiosyncratic and heterogeneous phenomenon in which individuals are free to fabricate their own religiosities as a patchwork of beliefs and practices, bricolages and compositions oriented by subjective interests rather than communal blueprints. (367) Kemp uses the term “implicit religion” to characterize the New Age milieu, which he equates with “self-spirituality”. (99)

As collective expressions of spirituality are increasingly being dissolved, new spiritualities have arisen as alternatives to traditional religious forms. Driven by privatization and pluralism, a subjectivization of religion has occurred in which individuals are not only responsible for their personal religious existence, but are actively involved in shaping unique expressions of spirituality that conform to the necessities and structures of modern life. (Berger) Societalization, defined as the post-renaissance shift in the West from community to society, has also caused disruptions of standardized life courses, placing individuals into situations of social isolation and disenchantment.

In response to time-space compression effects, New Agers and neopagans have sought to re-enchant their life worlds through the creation of post-material and de-temporalized communities, as a way to escape from what is perceived to be an unmagical, and even dehumanized existence. In what may be termed the sacralization of subjectivity (Luckmann, 1990, p. 135), new ceremonial groups endeavor to create cultural spaces in which an intersubjective sharing of one’s spirituality can occur. These alternative spaces allow for communal forms of socializing that are perhaps not available to individuals within their mainstream lives, and who may otherwise be isolated in their personal spiritual quests.

Psychonautics is a particular type of religious seekership, in which individuals explore the boundaries of their identities via transcendental states, evoked through the use of entheogenic plants and other psychedelics. The dreams and visions described by my informants moreover lend themselves to mythologizing. Through connecting themselves to collective stories such as Alice in Wonderland and The Matrix, individuals who imagine themselves to be knights on solitary spiritual quests are able to find common meeting places in which to share their otherwise unarticulated subjective experiences.

Ceremonial plant entheogens, analogous to the mushrooms eaten by Alice in Wonderland, and the slippers worn by Dorothy in Oz, represent magical keys that can unlock the hidden potentials sleeping within these hero characters. Such narrative mechanisms, involving social and psychological processes, symbolize individual growth and liminal transformation. Falling down a rabbit hole, or entering the matrix, the hero is transported to alternate realities in which they undergo bizarre adventures that induce identity transformation.

But these journeys are also undertaken for therapeutic purposes. Prevalent new spirituality themes include a seeking for community and magical fellowship, and to commune with nature. There is often expressed a desire for wanting to re-enchant the world and by extension one’s life.

Modern spiritual seekership is also about looking for answers to questions that are largely ignored by mainstream science or capitalist life. For many participants this shows the need to have something larger to believe in, beyond economic success or positivist explanations for one’s existence. There is a deep desire among members of wanting to see the world as being magical, and of wanting there to be something, anything, behind the ordinary facade of a logical and calculable reality. This manifests as a dreamy preoccupation with the possibilities for a transcendent experience, and a belief in the mind-altering potentials and healing benefits of plant entheogens.

But it is also coming to terms with the uncompromising meaning structures of modernity, and secular definitions of reality. This is symbolized by the iconic scene in the Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal the man behind it. The Wizard is exposed as a sham, that there is in fact no wizard, only a con man who’s lost and trying to get home. In the same way, traditional religion has been for many in the modern period something rendered equally as fraudulent.

Methods

This essay is derived from a doctoral study conducted in the Sociology Department at the University of Pittsburgh. My dissertation, titled Re-Enchanting the Social: Identity Transformation, Embodiment, and Prefigurative Religious Practices in New Spirituality Culture is a study of alternative or earth spiritualities. The ethnography is focused on a quasi-religious subculture active in the Pittsburgh area, known to members collectively as Peaceburgh: A Peaceful Gathering of Hands. The community is composed of dozens of groups of varying size, in which individuals tend to hold multiple and overlapping memberships, with inner and outer levels of belonging, commitment, and involvement.

Approaching this milieu ethnographically required gaining access to somewhat unconventional social situations, some of them secluded micro-societies that practice forms of spirituality involving the use of psychedelics and/or group sexual experiences. All participants in my study are adults, and agreed to being observed, and in some cases interviewed. Although I did attend ceremonies in which entheogens such as Peyote and Ayahuasca are used as a sacrament, e.g. Native American Church medicine ceremonies, the discussions and references made to these substances are based on my informant’s personal experiences, which in part fuel their spiritual convictions.

The study is composed of ethnography, participant observation, and literary discourse analysis. My fieldwork occurred within small groups that operate primarily in the Pittsburgh area, but expanded to include some larger intentional communities that are connected through member’s contact. As mentioned above, alternative or new spiritualities have been described as a diffuse and variegated, making them difficult to study.

However, using a grounded theory approach to local and specific examples of this multicultural phenomenon, I have gained an understanding of a dynamic system of inter-subjective social processes. Participating alongside my subjects, sharing in their spiritual experiences, and applying to them a rigorous empirical observation and analysis, has enabled me to render intelligible the otherwise opaque and shifting structures of meaning embedded within individually synthesized collections of beliefs, practices, stories and discourses.

Grounded Theory Reflections

One of the most enjoyable aspects of doing qualitative research is the almost magical emergence of unintended consequences. For example, I did not originally set out to create a chapter based upon Alice in Wonderland. It just emerged spontaneously out of my data and analysis. The themes contained in the Alice stories appeared in my interview transcripts as things my informants cared about.

That is the remarkable thing about doing grounded theory research. The significance of this discourse, and how it connects to the life worlds communicated by my informant’s, was revealed only via the research process itself. I did not assign any special importance to Lewis Carroll’s books prior to undertaking this study. Nor could I have predicted how much they mean to my subjects as adults, in terms of their spiritual cosmologies.

While I could say that the Alice stories work remarkably well as metaphors for describing spiritual seekership, the truth is that it surfaced so frequently throughout my interviews, to not use it seemed an oversight. The themes present in Carroll’s writings are eerily aligned with aspects related to my informant’s brand of spirituality, which is probably why they are so predisposed towards the Alice texts as a meaning-making mythology.

Often described as “A timeless adventure of fantasy and nonsense,” Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland continually violates the rules of conventional literary narratives. Carroll’s “disruption of the continuity and causality on which many fictional representations and philosophical conceptions of identity and reality have tended to rely,” distinguishes his text from others in its literary category. (1) Carroll’s books represent a marked departure from other children’s stories of the time, that were intended to educate and impart a moral message: “moral tales for Christian propaganda and social control”. (9) The latter were almost uniformly pedagogical devices, concerned with teaching a causality system, i.e. that misbehavior would result in immediate and severe punishments.

Carroll’s texts, far from supporting, actively sought to ridicule such moral narratives. Similar to other types of underground movements and publications, Carroll’s use of illogic is a partly disguised subversion of the above-ground world’s sense of meaning and order. It is also an attack on the logical, orderly, and coherent approach to life stressed by post-Enlightenment Europeans. Through an examination of their themes, and how they resonate with spiritual ideals, the following analysis will account for why these stories hold such a fascination for my study participants.

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