from the Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies
MAPS - Volume 6 Number 1 Autumn 1995


Youths and Entheogen Use - A Modern Rite of Passage?
By Andrei Foldes, with Amba, Eric Johnson, et al.


It should come as no surprise to readers of this Bulletin that psychedelic plants are used as a sacrament by many native cultures all over the world. It may not be so obvious that these same plants are often incorporated into the coming-of-age ceremonies of these various societies. Their cultural perspective is that the taking of the entheogen is at once a heroic act and a necessary step in the transition from childhood to adulthood. They consider the visions and revelations experienced by the initiate to be quintessential to his or her functioning as a member of the community.

The question that we need to address is: What relevance do these ancient traditions have to the experience of a modern adolescent growing up in the western world? Rather than indulge in idle speculation I have invited a number of young people to express their views on psychedelics and the effects these substances have had upon their lives and minds.

Students of the psychedelic realms know that one's expectations are a powerful determinant of the direction, content and outcome of an experience. So, we should say at the outset that the experiences recounted here were preceded by careful preparation, where the trip was presented as a learning experience and a process of self-discovery. They all took place in safe, supportive environments. They generally do not fit the stereotypical model of teenagers dropping acid at a rock concert, looking for awesome visuals and good vibes.

Some of the young women and men who share their visions requested anonymity. They did so reluctantly, to shield themselves from the penalties imposed these days for the expression of unconventional points of view.

"Ricardo":

"I went into my first trip with typical fifteen year old questions: Sex, my body, how I was supposed to feel about my new feelings and experiences. I had a lot of fears which crippled and frustrated me. When I went into the trip it opened up a lot of these fears so that instead of being suppressed I was able to work with them. I was able to confront my feelings and was able to make a decision about how I was going to be from that day forward. But the first trip in essence was not very ripe. The fruit was not ready to pick. Still it was a learning experience and some good came out of it. It may have set the stage for the second experience. I learned to have respect for mushrooms and their power, that they were something to be taken for serious purposes. It also settled my nerves, raw from adolescence. The settling came from putting aside my self doubts and not worrying about them so much. They were still there, but no longer such a high priority in life, or as intense or all consuming as before. It set me on a different path, my priorities became balanced. They went from just getting laid to a more balanced attitude.

The second trip, a year later, was very powerful and stayed with me, even though I did not take very much, just a couple of grams. It was a hard trip, two and a half hours convulsing and one hour pure paranoia. Before I went into it I was crippled by fear of social situations, afraid of annoying or hurting others. After it I felt liberated to be myself with other people. Instead of worrying about second guessing others' desires and trying to fulfill them I became more aware of my own desires. Who knows what others want?! I only know what I want. In worrying about what other people think, you forget what you think. A switch in my behavior took place. There are still elements of the old, but afterwards I found I was a much happier person, which has made other people happier. Shortly thereafter I met my fiancee. [Ricardo is now twenty four.]

Since then I have a profound respect for mushrooms and I have no desire to go back to them. I have a sense of profound completion. I like my mind where it is right now. I have no desire to change it."

Amba:

"The magic of mushrooms has been known to me since I was eighteen (I'm now twenty one), five years after my first introduction to marijuana. I felt that a button had been turned on with marijuana and I instinctively knew that there had to be more - I wanted to experience all the possibilities that marijuana awakened me to and explore all the pathways of consciousness that I could find. Natural drugs appealed to me as opposed to the synthetic variety - thanks to the on-going education and encouragement from a friend's 60's guru drug-friendly parents. During my first trial with the drug I felt the most euphoric that I had ever felt and have not felt anything similar to this day. [My friend and I] were able to telepathize with each other and within several hours had explained the beauty and fault of nature and society in every possible way without a single word. I promptly changed my life. Ending the negative cycle of abuse which my family had refused to recognize, I left the country and started a new way of being. I gave up marijuana, except in a social sense and restored my diet, insistent that my life path would be to research and write about the possibilities and dimensions of the mind, to learn about the budding spirituality that had emerged from a temple of atheism. Foreign as it is, none of this has changed.

I noticed that at the same time we were experimenting, the younger generation that surrounded us as brothers and sisters was trying out the same drugs, with the same effects. The son of my significant adult teachers was eleven when he tried marijuana and fifteen when he tried mushrooms. He is now seventeen and you could swear that he was in his mid-twenties. The age gap disappeared on the first occasion we all tripped together and it has never returned. It's like the doors to the future were flung wide open, our brains were on show to all and each other for minute examination and realignment, restoration, and no matter what stage one was at, we all ended up in the same place. Our vision quest was unintended and unexpected, well, except in its barest form. Through it we could clarify our "purpose" or "pathway" with the same energy expenditure as going for a walk - the mushroom took over and we followed along, lambs willing to slaughter the misguided and chaotic patterns we had somehow slipped into.

Mushrooms changed my life. They changed the way I think and I know they will continue to change it. I have ended up with the utmost respect for the drug. I treat it as a tool for mental and spiritual exploration and will only take it with people who are interested in it for the same reasons.

You know, we take mushrooms to find ourselves, to find our roots, to discover ourselves spiritually and to experience the wonders of the mind. We take them to rediscover what we lost as children, the potential that floundered in the playground and classroom, slowly dying as we repeated our sums and painstakingly learned how the 'system' worked. Why weren't we gardening and meditating and singing and learning about energy vortexes and colours and the power of consciousness and SUBconscious and how to see with our eyes closed? Because it wasn't our time. My kids will hopefully never experience anything new on mushrooms, that is, if we get ourselves into gear soon enough and DO something about our so-called systems. And the people who should do it are people like us, people who KNOW the possibilities, even if it is by way of psilocybin and mescaline. It's propelling us into realizations of what the world is really made of isn't it? This is my Utopia."

Eric Johnson:

"The first time I remember being in a "tripping" state was at the age of six or seven. My parents took me to see a Moroccan belly dancer who was a friend of ours. The dance, glitter and rhythmic sounds changed my state of consciousness. The walls began to breathe and the floor bubbled. The people around me seemed to be no more than two dimensional silhouettes, shadows of themselves. I told no one. The experience made me uneasy with reality, but not overwhelmingly so. Events like that occurred many times afterwards. To a certain extent I could induce the state by spinning or in sex play or by just staring at patterns in mosaics, curtains, quilts or rugs. When I was sixteen I was offered the opportunity to try mushrooms. The offer was from my stepfather, who presented it to me in the context of a spiritual journey, something more than a cool thing to do at concert with two thousand other people. I took a large dose of five or six grams, after fasting the day before.

It was not a pleasurable experience, nor was it the "Bad Trip" people described to me. It was surely very powerful and re-awakened in me the sense of unease I had felt as a child.

That instability was like a Djinn let out of a bottle; once out it was difficult to put back in. As a child, the world being a little confusing and difficult to comprehend was the natural state. As an adolescent, trying to get a handle on the world while being confused further by a constant sense of un-realness was very disturbing.

The experience did spark an interest in exploring my mind, very much out of a desire to expel doubt from my mind. I looked into the practices of Buddhism and meditation. I also began seeing a psychologist. Both were useful in helping me see myself and bringing myself into a state of ease. In my present occupation I deal with people, helping them get an education so they can upgrade their job and lead (materially) better lives. I have a fairly good understanding of reality as far as day to day functioning is concerned. I doubt I would be functioning with such confidence in myself if I hadn't questioned the "obvious" stability. Taking mushrooms was a pivotal experience for me. By destabilizing my world-view they forced me to examine it and rebuild it on strong foundations, to develop a clear understanding of what my consciousness is, what 'meaning' is, in an objective way."

Interview with "Christina":

How old were you when you first took mushrooms?
It was about seven years ago. I was fifteen at the time.

Why did you do it?
Curiosity.

What did you think would happen?
I wanted to be happy and enjoy myself.

Did you prepare in any way?
I fasted. Also I knew I had to be in a good mood.

Were you in a good mood?
Yes, but I was always upset about something.

What happened when you took the mushrooms?
I remember hazy clouds, like a thick yellowish liquid in the air. Like in the womb, could not feel it but I saw it fill the room.

What happened after that?
I blacked out. I was really upset, terrified. People were grabbing at me because I was puking on myself, and I wanted to get away. I remember a lot of fear. I felt like jumping out, so I wanted to get away from the window. Then I realized they were trying to help me and not attack me.

What did you get out of the trip, was it useful?
No, it was too intense. I could not see anything nor remember anything.

What would you have done differently?
I would not have taken so much, or perhaps I would not have taken mushrooms at all.

Why is that?
I was not very happy at the time. Being unhappy is bad preparation for a good trip. Mushrooms draw your unhappiness out.

Did you feel damaged by this experience?
No. Maybe more knowledgeable about how suggestible I was.

I would like to note that "Christina" appeared to have understood and absorbed the preparatory information about mushroom trips. In retrospect though it seems that she manipulated the adults around her into believing that she was ready when in actuality that was not the case. Social pressures and curiosity on her part, and a naive trust on the part of the adults that all would be for the best combined to yield a very disturbing experience for a young girl.

Reclaiming spiritual heritage

We in the west live today in a society cut off from its shamanic roots. This is the outcome of a process of eradication that started in the old world with the burning of witches, and continued with the persecution of native healers in the lands that were invaded and colonized by the Europeans. In the economy of spirituality it was the monopolization of access to the sacred. In this process the cottage industry was annihilated by the forces of mass production, namely the church. Since the product sold by organized religion was demonstrably not of the same quality as the one offered by the shamans, and came at a higher cost, the competition could not be open and free but came down to a process of elimination, carried out by means of a systematic campaign of murder, torture and deception. The result of this work, begun centuries ago and continuing to the present day in the guise of the 'drug' prohibition, has been the effective denial of unmediated access to the spiritual aspect of our existence.

If we recognize the power of entheogenic substances to open us to the universal truth and full dimension of human experience, and if we accept the role of the shaman as hierophant and psychopomp into this realm, as enacted for example by the Huichol mara'akame, we have to conclude that today in western society we are deprived of two key resources for complete human growth. Young people, in their hunger for meaning, will still gravitate towards entheogens. The more experienced among us may try to ease their journey, but in the absence of qualified guides not all will benefit from their experience. Some may even be hurt. Good intentions, erudition, experience, even love, are not sufficient preparation for one who would presume to introduce adolescents to the intricacies of their minds, nor do they guarantee happy endings. We need to re-create the ancient networks of individuals who are equally at home in this reality and the one revealed by the sacred plants. Those confident navigators of both realms can guide initiates through the rough, rich, and often dangerous territory that opens up as the outer eye closes.

Appropriate contexts

I also envision a society in which the term "drug education" is no longer newspeak for the noisy proselytization of ignorance and fear. Instead, under that rubric young people would truly study psychotropics. They would one time drink beer, another time chew coca leaves, or sip strong espresso, or smoke fine Pakistani hashish, or opium, or even strong, aromatic tobacco. Each experiment would be preceded by study and discussion of the history, uses and dangers of the particular substance, and followed by analysis of the subjective effects and comparisons with other drugs studied. It follows that such a course of education would culminate in a field trip to a meeting of the Native American Church, or Uničo do Vegetal or another group of that type. What better way to prepare youths for their contact with psychoactive substances than to trust them with the intellectual and experiential tools they need to make informed decisions? And who knows, maybe in the process of learning about drugs they will discover much about themselves.

Clearly these herbs and brews need first to be recognized for the beneficial, healthful products they are when used appropriately and in moderation. Contrast, for example, the reverential puffing of the peace pipe by Native Americans with the compulsive chain smoking of a tobacco addict. Or the festive roasting and chewing of coca leaves in the Andes with the destructive craving of a crackhead in New York. All of these substances are revered as divine gifts by the native cultures that discovered them, but become scourges in the hands of the modern materialistic world we live in. Rather than proscribing their use perhaps we should instead address the rampant materialism that plagues us. For that purpose few means are as powerful or as effective as psychedelics, respectfully approached.

Psychedelics are not a substitute for faith. They are a door to authentic faith, born of encountering directly the sacred dimension of everyday experience. This is not the only gate to that discovery, but it is the most ancient and universal, and potentially the most accessible to the majority of the human race. This portal has been crossed and celebrated by countless cultures including the Greeks and the Romans, our direct ancestors, and remains open today for us despite society's repudiation. We cannot however afford to let our children be held hostage to the intolerance of the moment. Their spiritual life is too important, both to themselves and to the greater world. We need to establish micro-environments of freedom and respect, within which to work with entheogenic plants in a sacred way, and in which context our young could choose to be initiated when they reached the right age. Such zones may have the effect of "seeding" the larger community and contribute to a consciousness shift that will embrace work of this nature. On the other hand this shift may not come within our lifetimes, if ever. The historical lack of accommodation between organized religions and shamanism does not bode well.

The psychedelic journey is one of the very few ways we can enact in our lives the mythic hero's journey. It is a voyage of discovery, fraught with surprises, adventure, awe and danger. It is a trip to a real treasure island, from which one can return with permanent wealth. It is blinding joy and bitter grief rolled into one, the finger pointing at the moon of true experience after the suspended animation of television, nine-to-five, and shopping centers. Many young people today dimly suspect as much, and will reach for this experience in many ways. They will do it at raves, at rock concerts, and in living rooms when the parents are away. If we happen to be both lucky and wise, our children will come to us and bravely ask for permission and for help in their quest for a vision. And at that moment we would do well to have the courage to not retreat into: 'No, it is forbidden.'

Andrei Foldes can be contacted throught the Internet at olddog@ix.netcom.com.