the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body
not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow,
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea—
Les Murray, An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow.
In her essay, “How Psychedelics Helped Shape the Extinction Rebellion”, Gail Brabrook, one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion UK, reflects upon the role of traditional psychedelic medicines in helping her formulate the values and philosophy underpinning the movement. Gail has been an activist for years, but as she acknowledges in the essay, there seemed to be something missing from the more traditional forms of political activism she was involved in – and that missing something she was able to acquire by taking these extremely potent traditional medicines. Psychedelics are renowned for their capacity to expand and deepen human consciousness, from their traditional use in shamanic healing practices, to their role in unleashing the explosive spiritual and artistic revolution of the 1960s.
The element missing from traditional protest movements is emotional and spiritual depth. It was these aspects of human experience, which are central to Indigenous shamanic conceptions of nature and the cosmos, that seem to have become manifest in Gail during her psychedelic experiences with traditional plant medicines such as Iboga and Ayahuasca. More specifically, by facing the truth of the climate and extinction crisis – to actually feel the implications with all of the emotional ramifications of loss and grief that that process often entails – a space was opened up in her psyche that seems to have been previously inaccessible. As Gail writes, the experience gave her ‘the courage to acknowledge and witness this loss and create space for the expression of grief.’ And that sense grief and loss became the engine for her political action – action flowing from love and from courage. This is ecopolitics with a soul.
I was pleased to read about the role of psychedelics in how the values of Extinction Rebellion were formed – but not surprised. I do research in the emerging field of psychedelic neuroscience and am fascinated by the role these unique natural substances have played in human cultural evolution and ritual life, which archaeologists argue may go back as far as 7000 years. One of the areas of research that I am interested in is the ability of psychedelics to profoundly perturb brain architecture and to consequently alter consciousness in unique ways previously unimagined by Western psychiatry and psychology. What is particularly interesting about current research into psychedelics is their apparent ability to successfully heal treatment resistant depression. In these studies patients were administrated a high dose of psilocybin, the chemical compound found in magic mushrooms. The profound healing capacities of such substances is something shamanic cultures have known about for millennia – knowledge that Western science and psychiatry is only now rediscovering.
One of the findings of recent research in this area is the ability of psychedelics to increase what psychologists call measures of openness. Openness is one of the major personality traits studied by psychologists. The concept refers to a certain personality disposition associated with creativity, curiosity, and openness to new and unfamiliar experiences and people. Interestingly, it is also associated with positive feelings towards the natural world, a kind outflowing of sense empathy for nonhuman others. What is fascinating is that when administered in appropriate clinical settings, psychedelics increase long terms measures of openness. Not surprisingly, psychedelic induced increases in openness have also been associated with increased environmental awareness.
Interestingly, it has been suggested that the ability of psychedelics to increase people’s sense of openness and emotional responsiveness to the natural world, may have underpinned the growth of the environmental movement during the 1960s and 70s. So it may not only have been a blossoming of spirituality, art and music – Ginsberg, The Beatles, Hendrix and The Grateful Dead – that psychedelics inspired, but also a deepening connection to nature in Western culture.
The kind of experience that Gail writes of, and which gave rise to the 1960s spiritual and artistic revolution, is one which we can now understand from a scientific point of view. What has fascinated me from a neuroscientific perspective, is that psychedelics seem to reduce activity in what is known as the default mode network – a hub of brain regions that are believed to underpin our species’ unique form of social intelligence. The default mode network is also believed to be the neurobiological basis of the human ego complex. The reduction of activity in the default mode network also seems to be accompanied by disinhibition of the deeper emotional centres of the brain. Such disinhibition may result in the rising into consciousness of deep-seated trauma as well as profound feelings of oneness and connectedness to the world outside the mind – an experience of mystical union that is often referred to as ego dissolution. In other words psychedelics seem to break down rigid ego structures and release the deeper, latent areas of the psyche that connect us to the external world – structures that often remain inhibited or repressed in our normal waking state. It is this release of deep seated and latent emotions that seems to explain the unique ability of psychedelics to heal depression and other psychiatric disorders.
Given these findings it makes perfect sense that psychedelics would increase people’s concern about the environment – by reducing our habituated egocentric thought patterns, psychedelics make us more emotionally responsive to the world outside of our incessant internal stream of consciousness.
However, psychedelics can also put the mind into a very vulnerable and sensitive state, for when the default mode network is deactivated painful memories and emotions may erupt into conscious awareness. This is one of the reasons such substances should be taken responsibly and preferably in a clinical or traditional ritual setting. Sometimes the trauma that rises to the surface of awareness – be it personal or collective – can be so overwhelming as to compromise a person’s mental health. But taken responsibly and with the correct attitude and support, they have profound potential to heal the human mind.
This research not only helps us understand the kind of response that Gail had when taking psychedelics, but it also helps illuminate the unique values that underpin the Extinction Rebellion ethic. This is how Gail explains her experience:
Supported by my experience on psychedelics, what’s made a difference for me with Extinction Rebellion is the ability and willingness to face the grief and the trauma of these times. This means bursting into tears at odd times of the day, it means creating support networks and communities because you can’t do it on your own, because you become alienated if you don’t share with the people around you how you’re feeling. Grief is an essential part of this process because there’s something about grieving that opens the space for love, which opens the space for courage – and courage will be essential in this struggle against climate change.
Such an emotional or spiritual dimension underpinning radical politics has been missing from progressive movements of the last few decades, which have tended to be materialistic in orientation and if not explicitly, then implicitly atheistic and anti-religious. Camille Paglia, in her essay “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s” argues that the 1960s represented an eruption of Dionysian nature worship into the staid mores of the 1950s – an eruption underpinned by a sense of spiritual quest often facilitated by the psychedelic and other forms of religious experience. She also contends that the unification of politics and spirituality that characterised the 1960s was lost during successive decades, where progressive movements drifted further and further away from their roots in an expanded conception of humanity’s place in nature and the cosmos.
Reconnecting politics with spirituality is what differentiates Extinction Rebellion from other contemporary progressive and environmental movements. And it is here, in my view, where the strength of the movement lies. We are not only in the midst of an ecological and climate crisis but also a collective psycho-spiritual crisis. In some sense the external crisis of impending global ecocide is symptomatic, and an expression of, our collective internal spiritual crisis. It seems we cannot deal with one without dealing with the other. To heal the earth, we also have to heal ourselves, and bring to the surface of our collective consciousness those emotions that make life meaningful, valuable and worth protecting and cherishing. And with that reawakened sense of love and concern, healing and rewilding our one and only home in this strange universe we happen to find ourselves in, could become the most important moral imperative of our times; as Gail has written in the recently released This is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook:
All the children are our children. We can protect those closest to us only when we remember our love for those furthest away. This is an international rebellion, aligned with all people’s living with struggles to protect life on earth. This is sacred.