By Lily Ross (*)

written especially to this site, adapted from Psychedemia Conference, University of Pennsylvania, September 30, 2012

To begin, Entering into a Larger Conversation is not solely a reference to intersecting academic disciplines approaching psychedelic science and cultural studies, it is also a reference to private conversations. What follows are questions and ideas that I, and many others, have been discussing behind closed doors for some time. Topics which, until Bia Labate’s talk at the WVC this year, I had yet to hear in the public discourse.

I will begin with a story about shamanism, the word shaman, then I will situate myself as a researcher, and finally I will share some questions around Power, Authority, and Integration. My hope is that doing so will feed and expand the important conversations already happening, by bringing each of you and your minds into it.

Regarding shamans, which is really to say, “regarding power”: a few weeks ago, a young man walked into a pizza party. Great style, Notable presence. I greeted him “why, hello, are you a pirate?” to which he responded “no, I think of my self as a nomad shaman.” That was the end of the conversation.

It was a break through in my work. I sought out my friends, and what ensured was a discussion around the position of power one claims by introducing themselves, at a pizza party, as a shaman. As an introductory statement “I am a shaman” is a bit like saying “yes, hello, I know the secrets of the universe and have the power to heal you.” Not exactly enticing; and if it is enticing, and not for arguments sake, it’s worth considering why.

Why do I begin to talk about power with this story? Because I have never been to a “psychedelic” community event, conference, party, or gathering, without there being at least one person introducing themselves as a shaman, or considering themselves one, whether they speak it or not. And that doesn’t mean they aren’t, there could be shamans here [at Psychedemia]. You know who you are your not about to make a point of it to me. But we can’t talk about psychedelic culture as it is lived and expressed without talking about shamanism and neo-shamanism.

And for the record, my issue is not with the word shaman. The advective “shamanic” and the verb “shamanize” are useful in discussing what can be important aspects of the human experience. Shaman is useful too. There are great shamans out there. And there are dark shamans out there.

What I am getting at here is power: every day social dynamics, ceremonial authority and scholarly authority. All of these are impacted by people’s claims to power. Social hierarchy is normal, power isn’t bad or evil, but we need to be able to name it, to talk about it’s seductive aspects, and its potential abuses, because people’s safety is at stake. I’m thinking now about how many self proclaimed shamans pour Ayahuasca for dozens of people without the qualifications to do so safely. This talk is dedicated, in part, to the life Kyle Nolan: the 18 year old whose life ended in Ayahuasca ceremony in Peru last month.

Before I go any further, I need to situate myself as a researcher. The Psychedemia conference includes humanities and human sciences. It’s humans invested in subject-subject research relationships. And especially in the humanities, it’s messy. Our work is anything but “objective”. According to Val Plumwood, objectivity would place us in a rationalist privileging stance, which implicitly goes hand and hand with dispassion and dehumanizing relationships. Not to mention reductionism: which is a form of intellectual violence. Scholarship doesn’t need any more of that.

The first step in talking about interdisciplinary psychedelic studies, particularly in the humanities, and its future in a larger conversation is to take a page – an anthology really – from contemporary anthropology, and the work of Donna Haraway – and to recognize that we need to situate ourselves. This means articulating our position as human beings, and being self-aware enough to know as much about our own perspectives, biases and agendas as we can. Positioning ourselves as researchers contextualizes both our observations and our analyses.

I have plenty of biases, like you. Mine stem from my background, my whiteness, my womanness, my middle class upbringing. And what I hope to share today are the fruits if those biases.

More specifically, I am a poet, and a young lady minister-in-training considering what constitutes respectful approach to Indigenous Religions, which I’ll explain in a moment. I am alive today because of my work with entheogenic plant medicine, and for this I am eternally grateful to the people and plants who continue to hold me.

And I am a woman who has been vulnerable to people who have grievously abused their power. I have explored the sources and consequences of people’s claims to power. Claims of “being shaman” are a great example. When someone tells me they are a shaman, I want know where that claim comes from, who or what lineage stands behind it, how that person is being guided and held by people wiser than themselves.

Because power is seductive. And we are humans. And humans like being seduced.

So what’s this got to do with us in the academy? In psychedelic studies, the stakes are high. This is powerful stuff we are all talking about. Artists, historians, psychologists, anthropologists, literary scholars, religious scholars, shamans, healers, activists: a number of Psychedemia attendees are authorities on the subject of psychedelics in varying ways. This is a very unique position. Why? Because psychedelically inclined people look to authorities on psychedelics or artists in the community the way they might look to a healer, doctor, therapist or priest.  Psychologists were taught how to hold this dynamic in an appropriate way, but what about the rest of us? Many people wonder how to integrate psychedelics into their lives in a good way. By the nature of what we do as scholars – as authorities – in psychedelic studies, we are dabbling in deep deep waters, my friends.

I come to this work from a very particular lens: that of a minister in training. And no, I am not Christian, although some wonderful people in my life are. At the Harvard Divinity School I have a special interest in “Indigenous religions of South and North America”, particularly as related to plant medicine and entheogens. This, especially in light of the discourse of power, is a massive conundrum. As as a European descendant, my recent ancestors were complicit in the violence done to indigenous peoples throughout North America in the colonial project.

According to the US Supreme Court in Martin v Wadell is 1842, “The Indian tribes in the new world were regarded as mere temporary occupants of the soil, and the absolute rights of property and dominion were held to belong to the European nation… as if it had been found without inhabitants.”

Much of my work at Harvard has been locating myself in this conundrum. Plainly stated: what does a respectful approach to this land and it’s peoples and several forms of indigenous spirituality look like for me, an American woman, given such a messy and violent history and current cultural violence where my privilege renders me implicit in the continuing attempts at the decimation and erasure of native cultures?

Because here I am. I love this land, and have many friends and teachers among it’s Native Peoples. My teachers are initiates in the Southern Cheyenne tradition in the plains, the Quechua tradition in Peru, and the Tzutujul Maya in Guatemala. Like my teachers, I am a traditionalist: I value the container and integrity of lineage and will only approach medicine in that context.

This conundrum is relevant to anyone involved in psychedelic work, particularly Ayahuasca, Peyote, or another indigenously rooted, entheogenic traditions. My work boils down to respectful approach: an approach that does not perpetuate the colonial and imperial projects: that does not try to mine and extract indigenous knowledge for my own satisfaction (or even my own healing). It is a very delicate matter, requiring profound and constant reflexivity as a scholar and as a spiritual woman.

A fraction of this talk has been dedicated to telling you about who I am and where I stand, because I’m a biased, unique, and flawed human being. And this is not a digression from the topics at hand: which remain authority and integration. I want what I say to be seen in context. I study what I study because it has personal significance to me. Try as I have, I cannot seem to pull my gaze away from these topics, this landscape.

And because my work is ministry, is working with people, my personal insights make me better equipped to study what I study in a nuanced and lived, embodied way. It doesn’t mean I rely solely on personal experience. Not by any means. Learning and study happen in relationship: learning happens in the space between inner and outer experience: a window into my inner world is key in your unlocking what I have to say. In thinking about a respectful and integrated approach in the future of psychedelic research and psychedelic culture, I suggest that we must be willing to honestly locate ourselves and articulate our position.

Having situated myself, I arrive at the questions. These questions are important: the way to begin to mitigate risk around power is to plant seeds of life-giving questions in the wider cultural conversation. These questions are not only for the academy, they are questions I hope will trickle into people’s everyday awareness, conversation and action. I don’t have the answers, no single person does; but we, together, might find some.

With that in mind, for five years I’ve been preoccupied with questions of power in psychedelic culture and communities, especially – since I study ministry – in ceremonial circles. Who authorizes one to carry a medicine like ayahuasca? What kind of training is involved in spiritual contexts and how do we know someone is well equipped?

I wonder, what is the responsibility of anyone who is an authority in psychedelics –  scholar, doctor, healer, artist – and what is ethical behavior? What are we each accountable for? And who are we accountable to?

And what about the shaman-rock-star phenomenon? People introducing themselves as shamans at pizza parties? What does that do to social dynamics? When is that claim dangerous? I am profoundly uncomfortable with the claims to power being made without consciousness – a phenomenon all too common popular discourse surrounding shamanism, and neo-shamanism, in psychedelic culture.

These realms are real. Good intentions are not sufficient: power is seductive, and without proper guidance, claiming power is a slippery slope. I have seen some of the darkest sides of this. Having seen it, I think this community has a responsibility to talk about risk and power in the work we love. There are a few reported deaths from Ayahuasca in Peru and Ecuador, and increasing reports of sexual transgressions and rape. Not being willing to address this, what does it say about us as a community who loves and studies psychedelic medicines? Are we not then complicit?

My other preoccupation has been one with integration. And here I will focus on the personal. What is integration, for goodness sakes? What on earth do we do with some of these experiences? How many people have watched themselves, or a good friend, struggle profoundly, at times dangerously, with how to integrate a psychedelic experience? How do we do it? How do we know we have done it? Is integration a thing that is actively done?

I think so. I think integration is embodying: it has a gathering quality to it as if to say, “let me nestle this piece of me in the place it belongs”. How, exactly, it is done, and what it looks like varies from person to person. Integration is different for everyone, but it’s ambiguity does not diminish it’s importance in psychedelic culture. Above all, there is an art to integration, and that that art is rooted in the everyday. What some would call the mundane.

And that’s what I really want to get to: and it has been a challenge to find the words to say this as a young person approaching a group I hold in such esteem. As a young minister-in-training with particular attention to healing work with entheogens, as a woman who is developing skills as an integration specialist to support people in understanding and living into psychedelic insights, and as a scholar being asked to talk about psychedelic studies, this is what I believe.

What makes psychedelic studies and psychedelic experience mean something is the same thing that makes any academic study or spiritual experience meaningful – the everyday. The integration of theory and practice, the applicability of research to people’s daily lives. To me, psychedelic work and research is about offering people a little release from the wrestling that accompanies our daily walking. Our research is doing that. It brings me joy every day to know about the work being done, and it is an honor to address you who are performing and supporting this work.

What I have tried to do today is lift up some of shadow aspects of our larger community – dangerous claims to power, and the need for personal integration – because if addressed in a good way there is rich learning in store. And that learning happens at the level of every day conversation: every day awareness.

One of my dreams is that we become a self regulating community when it comes power and authority. To support that project, I am compiling a list of questions that ceremony participants can ask space holders – in Peru, Ecuador, Gabon, or anywhere else – so they can get a sense of whether that person is a compatible and safe match for them. They are questions I hope will live in people’s consciousness. Questions like; “what is your training?” “who is your teacher?” and “what is your response to shadow?”

These are the only questions I am submitting: the rest I hope will come from you. I am also collecting personal stories of what some might call “challenging or unsafe ceremonial containers”. You can email safeceremony@gmail.com.

To conclude, I’ll bring us back to our entry point. No more wondering when Psychedelic Studies will have a place in the academy. We are here. We have been here for some time, and now new doors are opening. We have a long road ahead of us – as any honest, promising academic study does. The more sincerely we engage in self reflection – as scholars and as a wider community – and the more flourishing our internal critique within our studies and culture, the more seriously our work will be take by those outside of (and even skeptical of) the legitimacy of our work.

Psychedelic and entheogenic work is happening across the globe, and here we are, a collective of educated people, each seated in varying positions of power looking into this work. What we say and do matters. People pay attention to each other; it’s how we learn. As individuals and as a community, we need to be willing to examine our own power and the power that comes with what we do so that we can learn how to carry ourselves appropriately. We need to integrate power into our wider conversation.

At the end of the day, we are working together in service to something that lives beyond ourselves. Consciousness is multifaceted, and peers through infinite eyes. As scholars of psychedelic culture, we have a responsibility to do our work with profound self-awareness, and awareness of the power that accompanies our varying vocations. And we have a responsibility to take integration of psychedelic experience seriously. There is great promise in our work: the work we do on our laptops, in a Maloka in Peru or lying flat with an eye mask somewhere in the NYU Dental School [the site of their Psilocybin research sessions]. And the work we do every day over lunch, talking, with our friends and colleagues.

And where it matters, is the everyday. And who it matters to, is every single person we interact with in this world. And why it matters? Because we love this work.

I hope that in times ahead, our community can be in a thriving conversation around power and integration, that gradually unveils the direction we can walk. Walking well is the response to the questions of this landscape. And, as we all know, walking is a thing is best done in good company. And in that way, we are profoundly blessed.

(*) Lily Ross is a 3rd year MDiv candidate at the Harvard Divinity School. Her background includes anthropology of the religious and post-colonial feminist theory. She in interested in the transcultural phenomenon of Ayahuasca, with particular attention to ceremonial authority, integration, and women’s experience. She is Director of Development of Critical Beats for the Climate (criticalbeats.org) and is a working poet and artist.

Comments are closed.