New Religions Religion and Media

Entheogens, Spirituality, And Modern Myths, Part 3 (John Cuda)

The following is the third of a three-part series. The first and second can be found here.

It Was Only a Dream

The idea of reaching another layer of reality via hallucinogens is often associated with the dream experience. Dreaming is believed by many New Agers and New Paradigmers to be a therapeutic phenomenon. But it also constitutes a parallel world, in which personal growth and spirit work are cultivated. At the end of Carroll’s story Alice wakes up in the arms of her sister, who is gently caressing her hair. The reader is thus left with a somewhat unambiguous explanation: Alice’s adventures in Wonderland were all part of an elaborate dream fantasy. This same concept is evident in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (L. Frank Baum, 1900), where at the end of that story Dorothy wakes from out of a trauma induced sleep, lovingly surrounded by her friends and family. The land of Oz, and all of its characters, were merely dreamt up by Dorothy during her period of feverish unconsciousness.

Many modern stories seem to share this format, in which the extraordinary or magical elements of a story are accounted for rationally in the end, by giving them logical explanations. The dream is thus accepted as an illogical space where the impossible is permitted to exist. Anything strange or supernatural is quarantined within the confines of the dream. However, ancient and medieval stories allowed magical phenomena to exist in the real world as well. For example, in Grimm’s fairy tales cannibal witches, evil spells, and super-intelligent wolves live in the same daylight world, side by side with mundane and everyday events.[1] In Greek stories the gods play prominent roles, and all manner of divine phenomena are allowed to occur alongside the ordinary and materially explainable processes such as work, love, and warfare.

For New Paradigmers dreaming and psychonautics are explicitly related. Users of Salvia Divinorum, for example, explain their trips as “waking dreams.” After ingesting or smoking a Salvia D. extract, individuals describe entering into dream-like scenarios or situations. Suddenly one finds oneself in another location, where they may encounter characters with whom they may become embroiled in a narrative quest. Individuals argue that these experiences are very similar to dreaming because during the brief period of the trip, which for Salvia D. is approximately twenty minutes, they are no longer awake in the usual sense. That is, they are no longer sitting in the room where they ingested the psychedelic, but are fully immersed in a dream state from which they gradually emerge, as they re-enter a conscious state of awareness.

Another common experience is one of regression. In these examples, individuals report returning to an earlier phase of their lives, usually a particular event that they relive or watch as a participant observer. In both cases, however, the person is no longer within the normal waking world, but occupies a position outside of the space-time continuum, they argue. In other words, one has entered an altered state of consciousness, a dream world. Inducing regression experiences via hypnosis, and doing dream analysis, are at the root of depth psychology and psychoanalytic practice.[2] Suffice it to say that doing this sort of dreamwork has therapeutic applications, which my subjects also emphasize.

Of course, dreams have a lore of their own outside of spirituality culture. I will not be reviewing this material comprehensively here. But because they are an important part of indigenous and animistic belief systems, many in the New Age and neopagan communities have incorporated dreaming into their spiritual practice. According to this perspective, by acquiring mastery over one’s dreams, one achieves mastery over their conscious lives. In these depictions, dream-time is a sphere of reality as important as waking reality. In fact, it is even more real than what we typically call real because it is argued to be more flexible.

This is because while dreaming we are able to bend reality, allowing us to do things that we cannot ordinarily do. In dreams we seem to experience less restrictions or limitations in terms of how we actualize our intentions. We can do fantastic things, and literally make our dreams into reality, no matter how other-worldly or unrealistic they seem to us in normal waking modes. My informants explained that this is achieved through mastering the techniques of lucid dreaming. By gaining control over the events and elements of their dreams, individuals are able to consciously shape and direct them. By doing this, individuals learn to control their dream reality, which they then transfer over to “real” reality. In other words, the skills acquired through dreaming are retained and brought over into the space of waking life.[3] [4]

In the Matrix story Neo learns to bend the rules of normal reality while inside the computer-generated world. This virtual training endows him with almost god-like powers that he uses to defeat the equally powerful shadow agents. In myths dream abilities are often associated with supernatural powers, e.g. Dorothy and the magic slippers. But the entheogens also do this. Psychonauts contend that magical/supernatural powers are really only latent abilities that we all possess, but are unable to access due to the limiting restrictions of our logical and rational cognitive paradigm, i.e. our ego constructions.

Early on children learn the rules of reality, in the form of laws of nature which cannot be violated. Psychologist Merleau-Ponty explains that people become conditioned to think and act according to these rules, which cuts them off from their own potentials.[5] Similarly entheogen usage for my subjects is partly about unlocking these hidden potentials, and living in an expanded reality that includes magical possibilities. Carroll seems to intuit this modern way of thinking about dreams as a practice space for real life. Notably he connects Alice’s identity change with the warping of spatial and temporal dimensions, in an under (subconscious) world.

The Journey Through Wonderland: A Modern Rite of Passage?

Individuals involved with psychonautics have subjective experiences that are of course unique. Between them they are similar enough, however, that they can be discussed meaningfully among participants. Through comparing their separate yet related experiences individuals may attain an intersubjective, and to some degree mutual, understanding of each other’s visions and insights. Members within this culture have their own stories that contain idiosyncratic structures, and personally significant referents, that can nevertheless be woven together into collectively held discourses. Combined with the Alice and Matrix texts, they provide common grounds of meaning, and serve as intersubjective meeting places.

But do these subjective processes reflect a universal human condition? In this paper I have made analyses, and drawn conclusions derived from my informant’s experiences and beliefs. However, such identity-making processes, that involve using reflexive texts to inspire alternative ways of thinking about one’s life, are not limited to psychonautic New Agers and neopagans. People from all walks of life must also navigate the complexities of modern existence, and find meaning where they can. To some extent we all share the common experiences of worrying over personal relationships, questioning our life’s decisions, and coping with fears provoked by political and economic forces beyond our control.

It may be that the concerns and issues involving order and meaning which appear in the Alice texts are culturally specific, and pertain largely to people of western European descent. In other words, lessons concerning the life course, like the ones illustrated in these stories, may be peculiar to westerners. All of my subjects share a cultural identity in common with these texts. If that can be accepted, I would ask the following questions: does every person who comes of age in contemporary forms of western society necessarily participate in these rites of passage?

Rites that, because they are shaped in accordance with the political and economic structures endemic to state capitalism, that due to economic expediency they (the rites) are socially distorted, malformed (i.e. underfunded, unsupported, or eliminated), or even nonexistent, when compared with traditional communalist ones? And if so, are individuals living amidst such conditions as stated above, developmentally undermined? In other words, given the strongly individualistic, boot-strap economic paradigm, which during the latter half of the 20th century in America has been paired with socialization processes that are, for lack of a better term infantilizing, are most people necessarily socioeconomic delinquents in this society until reaching their mid-thirties?

Getting one’s life together has become increasingly difficult for Generation X-ers and Millennials, and now possibly Gen-Zs. Attaining financial independence in over-saturated job markets for example, while harboring overwhelming levels of student loan debt, is becoming increasingly difficult. Neoliberal economic policies, combined with recent and increasing disparities in wealth and power among Americans, have resulted in whole generations that appear culturally disaffected, and possibly ill-equipped to support themselves materially late into adulthood. These conditions have social and psychological consequences that I will not explore in any great depth here, but most of my subjects belong to these cultural categories, i.e. people born in the late 20th century. The disenchanting forces that come with living under modern regimes is part of what provokes interest in pursuing new spiritualities, and the discourses and themes being discussed here.

For example, the Alice stories provide dreamy excursions into an amusing child-like world, one that escapes the central concerns of adult life, which includes being serious and responsible. Wonderland type fantasies serve as temporary forms of relief from the temporal and material demands placed upon individuals by the economic rationalism of capitalist existence. Moreover, Alice is a female heroine, and so she appeals to many members in my study population insofar as they revere “the goddess,” and celebrate the rise of feminine power in the contemporary era. Alice fits this narrative well.

Interestingly she also exhibits qualities which undermine conventional Victorian views of women. Casting males in the story as the irrational characters yields a clever reversal of the standard patriarchal trope, i.e. that women are the more emotional and illogical of the species. In the text Alice routinely dismisses the unreasonableness of the Hatter and Caterpillar with a ruthless logic, and when the Queen threatens to chop off her head, she brushes her aside by saying “nonsense,” which immediately neutralizes the threat by placing the Queen into a narrative cul de sac.

One young woman I interviewed told me that, in fact, “I am Alice,” insofar as she had been for some time journaling about her adventures in a parallel reality, which involves her dreaming practice. Perhaps with nebulous goals of turning the existing social order on its head, my informants often see themselves in the role of such characters, mystical wanderers in a wonderland. They sometimes hold disparate views of the world which must be reconciled. On the one hand they see normative society as non-magical and lacking in imagination, whose everyday life processes are largely characterized by the dull and superficial routines of work and consumerism. But more than that, operating within the polite “have a nice day” society are violent and dystopian forms of power. In the Alice stories this is symbolized by the Red Queen and her court, a chaotic and monstrous arena, filled with corrupt legal proceedings and frequent beheadings.

Yet my informants also view the world as a magical landscape, rich with possibilities for actualizing oneself, at least potentially. So, there is the impulse to retreat from the world, and to abandon it as a lost cause. But there also exists a desire to reshape the world, to make it a wonderland. The world becomes both a test of one’s readiness for action, and an opportunity to mold it via prefigurative practices, which includes practicing nonsense, or engaging in the unreasonableness of play. Due to space considerations, I will not provide very in-depth examples or analyses of these re-enchanting practices.

However, within the Wisterian community, participants have created enchanted spaces, e.g. Fairy Shrines: wooded areas that are adorned with magical or ‘sacred’ objects, personal items holding spiritual significance for individuals, with various shrines and altars upon which both personal and group rituals are performed; also cosplay ritual events held in labyrinths made of light (StoneHenge-like ringed patterns of candles in the dark) through which individuals dance or walk in meditative states; Practicing innocence, releasing inhibitions, practicing nudity, being child-like, doing creative things (e.g. making art, music, or swords in a blacksmithing workshop), participating in drum circles that are understood to be a form of “medicine” or cleansing practice, similar to the sweat lodge or use of entheogens; Practicing ‘non-reason’, being deliberately illogical, e.g. drinking rum with pirates in the Pirate Cove (Wisterian subgroup). All of these having the goals of engendering new forms of relationships, new ways of relating interpersonally, intersectionally, sexually and communally (e.g. raising children in intentional ways, as part of a tribal village versus a nuclear family structure).

Re-enchantment: Rediscovering the Fountain

The subjective nature of the sun child’s quest is evident within these stories, as it is in most mythologies. The hero’s life trajectory is often based on a solitary and rarified path that involves self-improvement.[6] [7] This general formula is also present within the Alice, Matrix and Oz stories. But it is paired with transcendental themes involving heightened states of perception, and transportation through normally hidden passageways to outlying areas and difficult to reach places that lie behind or beneath our ordinary experience of reality. This in part defines the meaning of re-enchantment.

Max Weber has argued that, in addition to producing new conceptions of a sovereign self, the post-Enlightenment legacy of intellectualization and rationalization has in effect emptied the world of its divine character, dispelling all of the mysteries and magical forces, and spiritual and ethical meanings once provided for by religion.[8] The world has been (literally and metaphorically) covered over in concrete. To quote folk singer Joni Mitchell, “we paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The earth is no longer conceived as a magical place infused with supernatural personalities, but is a harsh landscape composed of meaningless chemistry and random physical processes. For many, involvement in religion and/or spirituality is a form of coping with the social anomie that comes with living in a society that reduces subjective life experience to an objective mechanical process. To re-enchant one’s lifeworld is thus to reintroduce into it magical and/or whimsical elements.

For Alice and the psychonauts, this involves venturing into realms beyond the ordinary in order to return with special knowledge. For informants this can mean new ways of conceiving oneself, which translates into how to practice relationships more successfully, and how to live in harmonious conjunction with the natural world. In other words, to re-enchant one’s lifeworld necessitates an expanded awareness of life’s possibilities, beyond those outlined by capitalist economics, or the routinized programs of state institutions for example.

To re-enchant one’s life is thus to gain a larger perspective that empowers one to modify their relationships, so that they can continue to discover and enjoy the sorts of experiences, feelings, states of consciousness, and material possibilities they have acquired via their spiritual questing. Many of my subjects have defined their spirituality as being journeys of this sort. The means through which they accomplish these life expansions are most commonly yoga, meditation, traveling by attending spiritual festivals, or living for extended stays within alternative/intentional communities, and participating in entheogenic ceremonies. In this way spirituality is a means to an end, a vehicle for widening the limits for how one thinks about and approaches their life’s situations. In other words, spirituality and psychonautics are the passageways that lead one to higher states of consciousness and alternate/hidden realities.

However, in terms of creating opportunities for acquiring practical sorts of self-knowledge, spiritual practices are also believed to intensify the depth of one’s personal insights. Informants mention the need to actively seek knowledge about what constructs their daily existence. Issues pertaining to personal health and well-being frequently surface. Members have expressed the interest in acquiring an awareness of what lurks behind their life problems. In other words, they wish to know what makes them sick, what causes them to feel bad, and what people, jobs, or situations drain their life energies.

But also what makes them happy, and what provides comfort, solace and clarity in their lives. All of this work and attention, pursuing mystical quests and spiritual practices, seems to have for them this central organizing purpose. What I found to be most important, in terms of participant’s long-term goals, is the hope of discovering and identifying one’s problems, and then to figure out just what to do about them. It is a conscious search for ways of fixing oneself. An individual’s spirituality project, at long last, is thus an unceasing quest for bits of knowledge and experience, useful for implementing repairs on one’s being.


Encoded within the Alice narratives are the “discontinuities, ruptures, and transformations” that “direct historical analysis away from the search for silent beginnings, and the never-ending tracing back to the original precursors, toward the search for a new type of rationality and its various effects”.[9] In this paper, we considered the Alice stories as narrative depictions of what this new type of rationality is, i.e. psychonautic awareness, and some of its effects. Doing this has demonstrated why these texts are so important for my subjects. We were also able to show how individuals have used story elements to interpret their experiences, and how these texts serve as models for how to tell their own stories.

Texts such as Lewis Carroll’s Alices, and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, tend to focus on the troubling aspects of modern life. Through examining the hierarchical societal structures and paradigmatic thought processes that inform western culture, such narrative depictions enable individuals to see how their lives are affected by, for instance, the hegemonic forces which shape their worlds. Textual exercises of this sort furnish readers with new ways of seeing the familiar, and offer new possibilities for how to cope with the unfamiliar. Through the use of exaggeration and parody, these texts act as therapeutic mediums that allow for reflexive distance.

Using them individuals are able to separate themselves and laugh at the otherwise frightening and monstrous aspects of their existence, such as the ruthless and dehumanizing forms of power that modern states wield over their citizens. Many features in the Alice texts hold appeal for my subjects on these bases, but they also reflect their spiritual interests. Indeed, among the most remarkable of Carroll’s achievements is that his books create the means through which individuals can experience Alice’s dreams as if they were their own. Dramatizations such as Waiting for Godot and On the Importance of Being Earnest also do this, by giving modern readers places for encountering many of their deep-seated desires and anxieties, in ways moreover that are comical, which makes them therapeutic rather than destructive experiences.[10]

It is no wonder that a lively psychedelic fantasy emerged in a period of stultifying rigidity, and to counter the morbidity of a decaying culture. As Donald Rackin argues, the “religious and metaphysical assumptions that once answered the basic human need for orderly, complete, and permanent explanations and reasons beyond the reach of reason had thinned out and vanished for a great number of Victorian intellectuals during their lifetimes, destroyed by natural innocent childlike curiosity like Darwin’s—and Alice’s. The resulting God-less void was terrifying”.[11] The texts thus serve as a therapeutic medium for some, to work out their culture-based fears, traumas, and depression. Rackin argues, however, that “Alice’s literal quest serves vicariously as her readers’ metaphorical search for meaning in the lawless, haphazard universe of their own deepest consciousness”.[12]

Common mythological themes, such as the quest for knowledge or immortality, are materially symbolized by the fountain of youth and the holy grail. The reasons such themes resonate with so many people historically and cross-culturally, is that they are at the center of human existential concerns. The modern scientific goals to map the human genome for example, and to search for cures to the diseases which plague us and cause so much misery and suffering, are some of the most highly funded scientific pursuits in the world today. Similarly, the therapeutic aims of practicing psychonautic spirituality are likewise to heal oneself, to become whole again, and to seek knowledge about how to live a fulfilled life.

John Cuda is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Lincoln University. He holds a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh.

[1] Ellwood 2005.

[2] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, (New York: Avon, 2006).

[3] David J. Brown, Dreaming Wide Awake: Lucid Dreaming, Shamanic Healing, and Psychedelics, (Rochester: Park Street Press, 2016).

[4] J. Endredy, “Shamanic Dreaming: How to Expand Into Higher Consciousness While You Sleep,” Conscious Lifestyle Magazine, 2018.

[5] M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, (New York: Routledge & Paul, 1962).

[6] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, (New York: Penguin, 1949).

[7] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, (New York: Anchor Books, 1991).

[8] Max Weber, The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism with other writings on the rise of the West, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[9] Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge And The Discourse On Language, (New York: Pantheon, 1982), 4-5.

[10] Rackin, 116.

[11] Rackin, 91.

[12] Rackin, 36.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.