When I first started experimenting with psychedelics about 7 years ago, I was fascinated by the mind of Terence McKenna. To this day Terence remains one of the most influential psychedelic thought leaders to emerge in the modern era and in my opinion, one of the most skilled users of language to grace the intellectual thought space.
One of the primary driving ideas behind his philosophy was that culture is not your friend. More specifically, Terence argued that “culture is for other people’s convenience and the convenience of various institutions” and it is a system that “invites people to diminish themselves and dehumanize themselves by behaving like machines” (Datun Center, 2015).
Although I agree with this general sentiment, I wanted to take some time to explore this idea further as I believe this is a common takeaway people have with their psychedelic experiences and I worry that it may pose some unseen risks. Specifically, I think an opposition to culture can be dangerous for young minds experimenting wth psychedelics and also poses a challenge to the success of the psychedelic renaissance that is currently underway.
I started experimenting with psychedelics when I was 18 and this curiosity was sparked, and subsequently fueled, by the bold ideas of Terence McKenna and other psychedelic luminaries. I remember coming across his lectures and being amazed as there is truly nothing quite like them. Even just listening to Terence speak can put you in a psychedelic state of mind!
The problem was however, that as a young guy making a transition into university at the time, I was going through a lot of change already. Looking back I think that these ideas around culture alienated me from myself and those around me and made it even more difficult to navigate the systems which I found myself a part of. Although I might not have pinpointed it at the time, turning a cold shoulder to culture was leading to a sort of cognitive dissonance between my inner and outer world. I suppose that to people who have not taken psychedelics before this might sound weird because, obviously, if you are rejecting culture then there will be some sort of dissonance... right? But that is precisely my point; for naive people taking psychedelics, this line of thinking can be romanticized and it therefore becomes less obvious.
Psychedelics can reveal the structures in our mind that have built up as a result of our culture. They allow us to more easily distinguish between these mental artifacts and those evolutionary artifacts that run deeper and reflect a more core sense of who we are. However, just because psychedelics allow us to see through the veil, it does not mean that this veil is useless. It does not mean that the veil should be discarded. You need to actively integrate these experiences into the fabric of culture that we are woven into.
I would argue that we need to be mindful not to throw it all away and instead, bring a greater clarity and appreciation to these cultural threads that bind us because they are a core part of who we are. Just because cultural frameworks are temporarily dissolved during the psychedelic experience does not mean they are illusory. They are very much real and have a strong effect on your behaviours in the world and your aspirations, including those which might incline you towards "love" and "light".
Aside from posing a danger to young and naive minds that are still developing a self identity, I also think that an oppositional stance to culture puts the current psychedelic renaissance at risk. Right now, we are trying to combat stigma through research. A big part of why there is stigma in the first place is because psychedelics were associated with anti-social tendencies. A prime example of this was the endearing slogan “Turn on, tune in and drop out” which professor and psychedelic advocate Timothy Leary coined in 1970. This captured the sentiment of many at the time which was that psychedelics were about disassociating with “the system” and the foundation of this system being our culture.
Again, I think this approach has a romantic quality, especially for those who have never had a psychedelic experience before, but I would argue that “dropping out” is that last thing we want to do if we want psychedelics to be taken seriously. Suggesting that the psychedelic experience falls strictly outside the cultural domain contradicts one of the primary principles of the emerging psychedelic renaissance; the fact that psychedelics are actually prosocial. When proper attention is given to dose, set and setting, these experiences have the potential to drastically improve our relationships with ourselves, the people in our lives and and the environment that supports us.
Culture is your friend - or at least, I would advocate that a steady and proper integration process should result in you still being friends with culture. Maybe you go through a bit of a rough patch and you see culture for what it really is, but ultimately, I think a healthy integration process ends with you still being friends... and if not friends then at least really good acquaintances. Yes much of our culture perpetuates unhealthy norms, but I don't think abandoning culture is going to help that. We need to show it some love and show up fully in a system that could use some attention.
I made the mistake early on of thinking that there was a suitable place to live beyond the veil. That I could disengage and check out because “I had seen the other side”. Looking back now, I think thats a really bad idea and it just leads to alienation and disconnection. Sure there is a lot of things that are wrong with our culture, but I think we should see psychedelics as giving us the opportunity to become more fascinating and empowered actors in this crazy simulation that is culture... and not as tools for escaping it.
I hope your psychedelic experiences have broken the illusions that surround you. I hope that you have pierced the veil and seen the other side. But I also hope that you kept some strong footing in this reality... in our culture. I invite you to use the psychedelic experience to deepen the awareness you have of culture and its impact on you and then leverage that awareness to help impact culture in a positive way.
Datun Center. (2015, April 20). Terence McKenna - Culture is not your friend YouTube. https:// youtu.be/j0JneoZwQ_E