The conception of illness and medicine that we have in the West – what we call the ‘medical model’ – goes back to the ancient Greeks and the philosophy of Hippocrates. The current view, continuing from that tradition, is that all physical illnesses have a physical cause.
This view of medicine seems to work well with some types of illness, particularly physical trauma, but has only limited success in the treatment of much physical and mental disease (a word which might be better through of by its constituent parts: disease).
Within the medical model, psychological processes are, from time to time, thought to play a significant role in healing, such as recently, but then only to a moderate degree. However, these psychological processes are eventually hoped to be explained by physical factors, such as genetics. Spiritual factors are generally rejected outright unless they constitute some sort of secondary psychological component.
This medical perspective seems odd given that, with many disorders, the beneficial effect of drugs amounts to only a small fraction of the healing that actually occurs through the placebo effect, thereby indicating the importance of belief over medicine alone.
Throughout all this time the medical model has also managed to conduct itself without any real definition of what life actually is, and has conveniently omitted to consider the existence of any kind of life force or energy, like the Eastern chi, or ki of traditional Chinese medicine or practices such as chi-gong.
Elsewhere in the world, older and more magical conceptions of healing can still be found. There, illness might be considered to be the physical manifestation of psychological or spiritual issues, and may even extend itself to other people unintentionally through ‘energetic’ or spiritual means. It is also thought that malice may be sent intentionally through sorcery or the evil eye, causing illness; and, by the opposite means, prayer can help heal or cure someone. Furthermore, diagnoses of illness may be sought through psychic means, or, through divination, future events might be foretold.
In many traditional worldviews thoughts can become manifest and knowledge can be accessed without the need for the intervening physical mechanics we understand as necessary in our ‘Western’ scientific worldview. But, how unscientific actually is this magical worldview? Certainly it conflicts with the traditional and, currently, the dominant materialist notion of science that considers that the world is only composed of mathematically-understood factors like matter, energy, force and time. Consciousness itself is often supposed to be merely illusory or, at best, an awkward side-effect of physical brain processes.
But even the most fundamental and robust of all sciences, physics, is at a loss to explain the ultimate nature of everything, and various respectable interpretations of quantum physics sound even more magical that any so-called ‘primitive’ worldview.
For instance, one understanding of quantum physics, concerned with what is called the collapse of the state vector, holds that the observation of an unknown physical state is necessary for it to become known – so that consciousness itself causes physical reality to occur.
Furthermore, defying what was once considered possible by classical (Newtonian) conceptions of physics we now know that two particles once joined together continue to simultaneously act together, even when they are separated by vast differences in space. However, physicists continue to argue over what is the best interpretation of quantum physics. So, perhaps magical conceptions of how the universe works are not so implausible after all. Traditional ‘primitive’ doctrines that consider that everything in the universe is connected shouldn’t seem so intellectually juvenile anymore, and nor should ideas that ‘two things once connected remain connected’, which is the basic principle of what was once decided as ‘contagious magic’ by Western anthropologists studying other cultures some 100 years ago.
When the English novelist Aldous Huxley was given mescaline (seemingly the most importance psychoactive constituent of the San Pedro cactus) by the English physician Dr Humphrey Osmond in 1953, he said that it allowed man access to mystical states by overriding the brain’s ‘reducing valve’. Huxley was a proponent of the ideas of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, who had, in the previous century, supposed that the brain acted as a filter of memory and sensory experience so that our conscious awareness wasn’t overwhelmed with a mass of largely useless information, irrelevant to the survival of the organism.
Bergson suggested that if these filters were bypassed, man would be capable of remembering everything he had ever experienced and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe, i.e. clairvoyance.
Huxley then applied this theory to mescaline and other similar substances – which he and Osmond called ‘psychedelic’, meaning ‘mind manifesting’ – and suggested that they override the reducing valve of the brain, bypassing the filters that stop us from potentially perceiving everything.
Huxley paraphrased this notion by quoting the English poet and mystic, William Blake: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.’
In my late teens I took psychedelic substances and experienced the world in a completely different way to that of my ordinary waking consciousness. I became extremely curious as to how these seemingly magical experiences occurred and so I went back to school to study psychology, and then went on to university to do a degree in the subject so that I might better understand these experiences.
I learned a lot about normal, and what psychologists call ‘abnormal’, states of consciousness but felt that the exceptional states experienced with psychedelics didn’t really fit either of these categories. If anything, in the end, studying mainstream psychology made me very cynical about everything other than the normal state of consciousness, and even that couldn’t be trusted it seemed.
After my degree, partly in an attempt to get away from this narrow and hardened scientific way of looking at the world, I followed a naive ‘calling’ to go to Mexico in 1998, though I knew practically nothing about this country.
While I was there I took the psychoactive peyote cactus in the desert and this triggered a whole series of what I can only call visionary and shamanic experiences, involving various profound synchronicities, esoteric discoveries, escape from death, and a spontaneous shamanic initiation into hummingbird wisdom.
The entire story of that journey would probably need its own book so I won’t go into it here, but it was an interesting surprise when Ross, who knew nothing of my hummingbird story and travels in Mexico, asked me to write an introduction to this book merely because of my current scientific research.
After a year and a half in Mexico I decided to continue my studies and returned to the UK to start a PhD in parapsychology, the study of the psychology of the paranormal, which at that time was the branch of science that I felt could most help me to understand the incredible experiences of the psychedelic state, because they are either normal nor abnormal.
Having finally completed my doctorate I am resuming the research that partly began in 1950 by Humphrey Osmond’s colleague Dr John Smythies, who conducted one of the first mescaline experiments into clairvoyance – the ability to transcend space to access otherwise unobtainable information.
That original experiment by Smythies had some success, as did a number of other psychic experiments with mescaline over the years, but by today’s standards those studies were not tightly controlled enough to rule out explanations other than psychic abilities.
So, currently I find myself in South America, scientifically researching people’s ability to obtain information from outside space and time through the use of the San Pedro cactus, because, independently of Huxley, Osmond and Smythies, we know from anthropologists that South American people use San Pedro for psychic purposes too.
For instance, one Peruvian folk healer described how he used San Pedro to induce ‘…the telepathic sense of transmitting oneself across time and matter…’, and in this book you will find a number of similar accounts from both San Pedro healers and from Europeans and North Americans (who we might loosely call Westerners) experiencing such things with the cactus themselves.
You will also find a great many stories in this book that challenge our orthodox ‘Western’ conceptions of healing and the bounds of reality; stories which, with the growing discoveries in physics, biology, psychology and parapsychology, should not, perhaps, seem so scientifically implausible these days.
Science may be one path to truth, but it is a path that was only allowed to consider the truths we might access through altered states of consciousness for about a decade between the 1950s and late 1960s, before governmental mandates dictated what kind of truths could be explored through science, or, for that matter, by any other means of investigating reality.
Fortunately, however, that restriction on science now appears to be receding and once again scientists are beginning to ask questions about the function of psychedelics in the brain, about their potential for healing, and about their capacity for inducing genuine mystical and so-called paranormal experiences.
For instance, survey research I conducted with a colleague, Dr Marios Kittenis, has found that there are some typical ‘transpersonal’ experiences (either of the mystical or paranormal type) that most commonly occur with mescaline-containing cacti (e.g. peyote and San Pedro). The most common of these is the experience of perceiving an aura around living things, followed by the experience of sensing the intelligence or spirit of the cactus, and then the sense of connecting with the universal consciousness of all things. For those who reported these experiences, they were said to occur often, or even more frequently, upon taking the cactus.
Less frequently and less commonly, in descending order of the number of people reporting them, experiences also included dissolving into energy, powerful long-lasting religious awakenings, out-of-body experiences, clairvoyance, death and rebirth experiences and/or past life memories, psychokinesis (influencing objects or people with one’s mind), encountering a divine being, encountering a (non-animal) intelligent entity, and the sense of the loss of causality (where A causes B).
For scientists, whether or not these experiences are ‘real’ is a matter of ongoing debate between those who believe that these phenomena may be possible and those who reject them out of hand because they do not fit within their confined ‘physicalistic’ worldview.
For the people who experience these phenomena, however, they are often considered ‘more real than real,’ and, although they challenge what we ‘Westerners’ think we know about the world, those experiencing these extraordinary events often find it very difficult to reject them as mere hallucinations. This is because these experiences often have such a depth of meaning and can stimulate such a wealth of personal change and healing that they cannot be ignored – and nor should science continue to ignore or dismiss them.