Sunday, 17 April 2011

Robin Williamson and John Renbourn in Sheffield

Robin Williamson and John Renbourne, Friday 15th April, The Greystones pub, Sheffield.

The first time I saw Robin Williamson play was with the Incredible String Band, in Cardiff, in 1970, on an all-day bill which also included the Four Tops. For me, the String Band were the archetypal British Acid Folk band, and that had a lot to do with Williamson's strange, fey songs and his skill with numerous instruments, many no-one in this country had heard of until then.

Between then and this gig I've seen him twice more, and both performances were different again - jug band style with Clive Palmer, bardic storyteller with harp. This performance was a bit of all of those, salted with amusing anecdotes from his long and interesting life.

The gig was sold out and, in fact, heavily over-sold - there wasn't even any standing room by the time the players were on stage, and this made for a rather spiky, irritable crowd. All that changed, as people consumed their sacraments of bitter beer, and the music got under way. Williamson played guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and Irish Harp, with real attack; his hair was long and grey but his voice as good as ever, still sinuous and quirky, and sensitive to the other singer, weaving notes around John Renbourn's. After the first two numbers Renbourn stayed very much in the background, the unobtrusive, excellent accompanist, around whose notes Williamson wove his meticulous ornamentation.

Before long, all irritation was forgotten, as we all surrendered to the power of one of the best and most civilizing things in the world - live music. Surely only Robin Williamson could get away with playing Howlin' Wolf's 'Goin'down slow' on an Irish harp...

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Review of 'Psychedelic Information Theory' by James Kent

Psychedelic Information Theory: Shamanism in the Age of Reason. James L. Kent, PIT Press / Supermassive LLC, 2010.

My acid-drenched late-teens spanned the very end of the 1960s. I longed for ways to describe and understand my highs and, at that time, the only book that claimed to interpret psychedelic experience was Timothy Leary's book of that name, which, modelled on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, handed the entire thing, lock, stock and goofy (but superior) grin, over to oriental mysticism.

What's more, the illegalization of acid in 1966 meant that book was left high and dry, washed up by the first wave of research, and so, by default, acquired a much more canonical status than it deserved. Another phase of investigation didn't emerge until the late 80s, when the MDMA craze catapulted psychedelics into the public domain again. Since then we've seen a cautious re-appearance of studies on psychedelic experiences; we seem, at least for the time being, to be in a modest renaissance of psychedelic research and evaluation.

James Kent's book is a timely and thorough attempt to describe and evaluate the psychedelic experience in non-religious, non-spiritist terms. He defines psychedelic information theory as: 'The study of nonlinear information creation in the human imagination, particularly in states of dreaming, psychosis and hallucination', and on its scope:

'It is the conjecture of PIT that all mystical states, including healing and regenerative states, have unique formal nonlinear qualities that can be described in physical terms close enough to make good approximations. This means that PIT is also a work of technical shamanism, neurotheology, or spiritual neuroscience, and can be referenced in the clinical application of psychedelic drugs in shamanic ceremony, mystical ritual, or psychedelic therapy.'

That's an early warning of unusual word-usage, with the peculiarly broad use of 'mystical states' telling us straightaway that Mr Kent does not hang out with mystics. He also positions PIT next to chaos magic, defined rather oddly but not inaccurately as:
'The practice of using ritual techniques of spiritual transcendence to manipulate belief systems ... an occult blend of neo-shamanism, cognitive theory, and social theory.'
More of which later...

Writing about how psychedelic information moves through societies, he has the insight to ask why we should care about PIT and answers with a whole chapter (2). Also, he is alert to the well-known dangers of psychedelically-triggered megalomania, and to the bad trip, which generates 'Psychedelic information with negative value ... delusional, paranoid, false, or subverts the health of the individual or culture.'

On the big question, What is Consciousness?, Kent lists, with relentless, confident abstraction, minimum requirements in data processing terms for a consciousness such as the human. Consciousness is seen as linearly stable - in other words, it tens to generate a single, linear narrative:
'Consciousness can perform many functions, but it only performs one function at a time'.

Is this a more extreme position than mine, in my review of Pete Carroll's 'The Octavo' last month? Or is it just that he's saying 'perform' in the place I would have put 'monitor', as in 'be aware of' or 'identify with as self'?

Yes, it took me a while to get over the 'systems' language (Ken Wilber readers: this is a very Lower Right quadrant discourse), but as I did, I got more excited by what this book represents. It is a sober (yes!), scientific approach to understanding not only the effects of psychedelics on the brain, but the effects on society; a real stab at a secular description of the relevance of tripping.

Discussing the other qualities of consciousness, he writes:
'Self-awareness is an epiphenomena [sic] of the functions and properties of consciousness maintaining linear stability through time.'

The use of the term 'epiphenomenon' rather than, for instance, 'subjective experience of', always flags up my parascience warning light, because it relegates self-awareness to a sideshow. This is an example of the reductionist viewpoint entering territory it shouldn't, the essence of the parascience attitude.

His theory uses a modular model of consciousness, which relates it both to chaos magic and to traditional soul-lore such as the Germanic. Approaching the psychedelic experience from this viewpoint:
'All hallucinogens must first destabilize top-down coherence of consciousness to produce novel states of spontaneous organization between the modular sub-units; this is how all hallucination begins. ... Destabilizing or splintering consciousness into novel configurations is the essence of psychedelic exploration'.

Yes! Now he's talking my language. This is the 'solve' of 'solve et coagula', the invocation of Ginnung, the hanging of Odin on the tree, the necessary dissolution before a 'collapse into higher coherence' is possible.

This insight develops into his 'Control Interrupt Model of Psychedelic Action'. Writing about our ordinary selfhood, he echoes Aldous Huxley in 'Doors of Perception', when he wrote of removing the mind's filters:
'What we perceive as waking consciousness is a synthesis of bottom-up sensation modified by top-down expectation and analysis . ... The top-down filtering and focusing of incoming sensory signal is ... perceptually seamless ... Tonic inhibition ... suppresses what is considered abnormal or outside the acceptable range of consciousness.'

Kent introduces a very useful model of how we do magic ('shamanism') on psychedelics:
' ... even though psychedelics destabilize top-down modulatory control of consciousness, feedback control and linear system stability can be entrained back into coherence via external periodic drivers, including rhythmic motor activity, drumming, singing, chanting, rocking back and forth, dancing, and so on. It is no accident that these are also the basic formal elements of shamanic ritual.'

In a very strange chapter, he models the form of the psychedelic interruption of ordinary consciousness using an 'ADSR envelope', something from the world of sound-engineering 'by plotting the attack, decay, sustain, and release (ADSR envelope) of the hallucinogenic interrupt as it effects [sic] consciousness'.

On the subjective experience of nitrous oxide inhalation, he writes:
'The periodic interrupt of N2O can be modeled as a perceptual wave ambiguity that toggles back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness at roughly 8 to 11 frames-per-second, or 8-11 Hz (hertz)'
Where do these numbers come from? Looking to footnotes, we read that the 'interrupt envelope is an approximation based on subjective reports.'

There's a lovely table for us psyche-nerds, listing a range of psychedelic properties that correlate subjective experience with binding affinities for aminergic receptor targets. He comes up with some fairly detailed models of how we hallucinate, and mentions an effect I'd always thought was psychosomatic:
' A common early side-effect of hallucinogen use is stomach tightening and intestinal cramping; this is undoubtedly due to 5-HT2A agonism interfering with serotonergic modulation of smooth muscle contraction in the gut.'

Having established that the brain's synaptic connections can be changed through training, he states that this is what makes shamanism possible, and he introduces Part II - Shamanism in the Age of Reason. 'Shamanism is the craft of evoking spontaneous organization of psychedelic information in a subject or group of subjects ... This ... fulfills the functions of therapy, sorcery, mind control, applied psychedelic science, targeted neuroplasticity, behavioral conditioning, and tribal bonding ... Physical Shamanism, or Shamanism in the Age of Reason, is differentiated from Spiritual Shamanism in that physical shamanism relies on models of neural oscillators and resonant wave entrainment as opposed to spirit models of channeling, telepathy, or clairvoyance.'

Then, after the promising start referencing Chaos Magic, he slides into conventional black/white magic nonsense:
'... the shaman learns to apply this technology for healing and positive plasticity, the sorcerer succumbs to the temptation to use this technology for black magic and negative plasticity'.

He has difficulty getting to grips with sorcery, defining it as 'the craft of manipulating the fabric of psychedelic space for personal gain or vendetta', even though he lists among the relevant powers a few which don't have to be used harmfully at all, such as clairvoyance, shape shifting, remote viewing and telepathy, as well as the darker skills such as curses and mind control.

This confusion, I suspect, arises from a lack of magical experience. He states: 'If shamanic sorcery is a kind of nonlinear chaos magic it should also be considered to be somewhat unpredictable, uncontrollable, prone to high rates of failure, and potentially dangerous.'
Yes, it certainly can be. And there are people out there doing it. When he says 'Anyone experimenting in the field of psychedelic shamanism should be careful to avoid the dangers and temptations of sorcery', I would add: 'Or if you're going to do it, at least avoid sloppy practice.'

This attitude does seem to be a little bit connected to his wishful thinking about the dance scene: 'Goa Trance music is the psychedelic essence of resonant hallucinogenic tryptamine interrupt ... Using an electrically amplified sound system, a trance DJ can manipulate a tribe of thousands in the same way a traditional shaman manipulates a tribe of dozens.'
What a pity that, judging from my experience, virtually no psy-trance fans use tryptamines, but confine themselves to the totally unchallenging phenethylamines such as MDMA. Is it completely different in the US? Or has he been seduced into the shallow newage attitudes around 'shamanism'?

He is good on self-transformation through repeated exposure to 'shamanic' events, and even seems to be referring here to what a magician would call the invocation of the Holy Guardian Angel, or Wode-self:
'The holographic image of idealized self does not emerge in a single moment or even in a single psychedelic session; the organization of a psychedelic meta-identity is a process that may take many hours of a single psychedelic session or possibly multiple psychedelic sessions to fully complete.'

One of the most hopeful passages is a section on that mysterious sense that most ayahuasca users get that some transformation is happening at the level of gene expression. He notes that 'hallucinogens target 5-HT2A receptors, and ... 5-HT2A activation has also been demonstrated to produce powerful anti-inflammatory effects in cardiovascular and soft tissues; and 5-HT2A agonists like LSD may produce potent anti-inflammatory effects against TNF-a (tumor necrosis factor alpha), an autoimmune regulator which has been indicated in atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, type II diabetes, depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease.'

This is tremendously exciting, especially for people like the two guys from I met at the Breaking Convention conference last weekend, who could only get relief from their crippling pain and fear from regular LSD use.

Dealing with spirits, he has the wisdom to assert that '... psychedelic spirits are tricksters', but recognizes that 'it does not matter if the spirits are real or delusion, the information they generate is real and can be analyzed from a formal perspective.'

Finally, he approaches the subtle and knotty problem of 'Gnosis, the All One, and Nonlinear Communion', and concludes that 'Without debating the metaphysical existence of God, the formal techniques for subjectively communing with the All One are reliable and repeatable, and can be readily achieved'.

There are some problems with this book. The minor one is that it very badly needs a proof-reader. Mis-spellings and solecisms abound; 'entoptic' is spelt 'entopic' in a chapter heading, and consistently thereafter, and there are some small but annoying problems with his biology, like reversing the night-day attributions of the retina's rod and cone cells (and 'amine crystals' do not pass thro the blood brain barrier - oww, that hurts! - amine molecules do).

The more major problem is that he has brought together many of the elements of a powerful theory, but it feels unfinished; the text continually swallows itself up, getting lost in a maze of details, as if it's waiting someone to come along and supply an overarching narrative.

In this book's sub-genre, there is probably nothing else since Jim DeKorne's 1994 book 'Psychedelic Shamanism'. De Korne navigates between science and magic, and never really makes a satisfactory link between them; Kent has gone much further and produced a much more useful discourse, but is confused about magic, his ideas contaminated by airy-fairy wishful thinking about shamanism.

For all those objections, this is a brave and useful work whose time has come. At its best, it reads like a manual that has dropped through a wormhole from the future, maybe 15 years on, from when we know how to run our brains.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Spirituality Redefined for the Publishing World - Watkins's Top 100

In the Spring issue of the Watkins Review, that venerable bookshop shared with us their list of 'the 100 most spiritually influential living people'. Can we learn anything from this unusual claim? What new meanings of 'spirituality' can we work out from this list?

Well, starting with numero uno, the top of what they refer to as 'The 100 Spiritual Power List', is someone I'd never previously heard of, Eckhart Toller.

This list is mainly of people I've never heard of (63 of them), and of the other 37, I've mostly not read their books. But that's just me.

The Dalai Lama is at #2; no surprise there; he would certainly fit most people's profile of the term 'spiritual'.

Ken Wilber is at #9; that also doesn't surprise me - he tries to make sense out of culture and higher consciousness, so that qualifies as spiritual.

I started getting puzzled, with Oprah Winfrey at #8. I know, I didn't either. Click on the link above; it gets weirder.

At #14 was my second big surprise - Alejandro Jodorowsky. That the creator of the wonderful film 'The Holy Mountain' can rub shoulders with the stiff, pretentious paintings of Alex Grey (#16), makes for strange bedfellows in the 'spiritual'. That writers of barking-mad drivel such as Drunvalo Melchizedek (#36) can share the space with the divine Alan Moore (#49) is even weirder; that the fantasist Erich von Däniken (#63) can hobnob with Stanislav Grof (#89), one of the greatest healers of all time, is just bloody daft.

But then again, I shouldn't be surprised; this is a list of what sold, so there are no criteria of quality at all.

Still, someone at Watkins Review did have to decide which books, films, paintings and lives (Nelson Mandela, #19) had some quality called 'spiritual'. So what explains the inclusion of Dan Brown at #42? No, there doesn't seem to be another world-renowned writer of this name; it really is the man who wrote 'The Da Vinci Code', so what is he doing here? I'm not paying £4.95 for a copy of the Review to find out, so I guess I'll never know.

Review of Breaking Convention

Breaking Convention: a multidisciplinary conference on psychedelic consciousness.
Fri April 1st to Sun Apr 3rd, University of Kent, Canterbury.

I only made up my mind to go to this three weeks before the event, and by then the only B&Bs left vacant in Canterbury were in the £50+ pppn bracket. I took a look at the conference forum (isn't the internet marvellous), got a place to crash and acquired four passengers for my London-Canterbury drive, a motorized pilgrims' route through the gravel-island floodplain of Southwark and out along the Old Kent Road.

The first night, there was a screening of 'DMT, the Spirit Molecule', the record of Rick Strassman's work with experimental volunteers. This film illustrates a major problem in every area of internal work which leads to staggeringly ecstatic states - that so many blissed-out people literally believe they are meeting angels, extraterrestrials and so on. They project the glory and radiance of their visions outwards, rather than owning them as attractors towards which we can all work.

In other words, dear visionaries, the good and the bad news is - that glory is YOU, that Angel is what you can become, that perfect extraterrestrial civilization is what we humans could have if we stopped messing about and learned new ways to live.
The same problem crops up with a lot of mysticism - the visionary has drawn away from, maybe even mortified, his flesh, in order to attain that bliss, and yet experience of bliss is experience in the flesh, it cannot be otherwise. Instead, though, the visionary often creates a little abstract playground of transcendence, projecting the glory that belongs to the flesh into that sterile realm.

Yes, angels and perfect civilizations are real - as real as rocks - but they are made from nonlinear patterns in our destabilized brains. Think of it this way: instead of running Windows or Linux, you're running unknown systems that don't have the kind of coherence you're used to - but very strange and sometimes superior kinds of coherence arise from that chaos.

Some of the talks, especially from some of the senior heroes of psychedelia, were stuff we'd heard before, even if we've never been to this kind of thing but simply read a few books. However, those famous names do provide part of the glue that holds it all together.

The conference was actually framed as 4 events, two running in parallel at any time, meaning that no-one could take in all the talks. My talk took place in the Exceptional Experiences slot. The afternoon had a terrific turnout - 50 seats plus almost as many again on the floor and side shelves.

Amongst the talks I particularly enjoyed were Tom Froese on the origins of symbolic thought. This included a critique of David Lewis-Williams' Marxist perspective, his assumption that all change is driven by social conflict, and pointed out Lewis-Williams's reluctance to speculate about what caused the altered states that gave rise to cave paintings. Was it psilocybin? If so, it is hard to imagine how Lewis-Wiliiams's putative elite restricted that sacrament to themselves.

A challenging perspective from Kilindi Iyi's 'High dose, towards an organic singularity' - this researcher was not kidding with the title - he claimed to have been modelling the shamans of pre-Sahara civilizations when he ingested 30-40g doses of dried psilocybin mushrooms, and became 'something more than human.' He also proposed the interesting speculation that, when the Sahara dried out, its civilizations moved to Nile, taking their gods with them, and forming the earliest layers of the Egyptian religion.

And Kalliope Tavoulari spoke on 'Psychedelics & scientific breakthroughs.' Everyone knows about Francis Crick (member of Soma, an org for legalizing cannabis) attributing his visualization of DNA structure to an LSD session, but the speaker had found a few other top scientists inspired by psychedelics, including Kary Banks Mullis, who invented the immensely useful DNA sequencing technique of Polymerase Chain Reaction.

My talk will probably be published soon; I shall be sure to announce it here. The purpose of it was to introduce the methodology of chaos magic to the psychedelic discourse - and I think it got a good reception.

Of the other events, I enjoyed the excerpt from Donal Ruane's forthcoming film on ayahuasca shamanism and his healing journey. One member of the audience had brought photos of a strange object he had thrown up during a recent ayahuasca session, which enabled his healing and made for a fascinating if grotesque discussion.

Robert Dickins gave a talk entitled 'The rise and fall of psychedelic literature', discussing how our views of LSD had shifted. Dickins made the important point that, with Leary's 'The Psychedelic Experience', a trip manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, an absolute meaning was ascribed to tripping, and this throttled psychedelic literature for a long time.

I would say that the same problem has come about, much more slowly, in internal exploration in general, where the success of mystics on attaining 'enlightenment' has overshadowed the whole field with absolutes derived from religion.

All in all, this conference was an outstanding success. The organizers did something really important: they made the 2nd ever psychedelic conference happen in the British Isles, the only previous one being in Bath in 2004.

Not only that, but they facilitated a bunch of more than 600 people to self-assemble from scratch a highly functional micro-culture. On the first morning, walking in to the conference a little late with two other delegates, a man stopped his car and gave us a lift. This was just one example of how civilized people were.

I did get the impression that, although exhausted, the organizers were sufficiently happy with the result to want to do it again in a few year' time. I hope so.