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Liminality, Communitas and Psychedelics

The concept of liminality (from the Latin word limen, meaning “a threshold”), was first developed by Arnold van Gennep in his 1909 book, Rites de Passage, where he wrote about the existence of the rites of passage in all cultures. Gennep thought liminality was at the centre of transition which incorporated three phases:

Separation: detachment from the previous social structure.

Liminality: intervening stage which is ambiguous, unbalanced and often disorientating.

Reincorporation: a stable state is reached, cultural norms and ethical standards are agreed upon.

Anthropologist Victor Turner discovered the work of Gennep and became interested in the second phase of his model, liminality. In 1963 Turner wrote about liminality in his book, The Forest of Symbols. He thought of liminality as the time of “betwixt and between.”

Turner proposed that this middle stage of liminality elicits a state of ‘communitas,’ (from the Latin noun, referring to the spirit of an equal). The pivotal point of communitas is found within the deconstruction of normative order, which strengthens equality and solidarity amongst a group.

In transferring Gennep and Turner’s concepts to psychedelics, we have certainly completed the first stage and have detached from a previous view of solutions for mental health. And it feels as though a liminal, threshold stage is currently being experienced. The reincorporation stage is currently being formed, and there are many who have strong opinions about how that should look. However, the discussion around defining the new cultural norms and ethical standards is in full play.

In looking back at the recent history of psychedelics, can we find a framework, which we can borrow from? Did any intellectual discussions take place, which we can learn from?

The late Patrick Lundborg, author of Psychedelia and Acid Archives, tells us that, despite rapid development in the research and study of psychedelics, there seemed to be a ‘troubling lack of intellectual discussion regarding the psychedelic way of life.’ He points to the early days of psychedelic activity as displaying a lacklustre approach in creating a system of ideas and experiences. And, that the subsequent later psychedelic phases (1950-1963 and 1964-1980) ‘show similar kinds of inconsistent, ad hoc intellectual frameworks.’

Lundborg refers to the 1966 foreword Dr Timothy Leary wrote in his ‘hallucinogenic interpretation of the ancient Tao Te Ching,’ in which Leary writes of the non-existent ‘maps, models, myths, theories, languages’ in which the psychedelic experience could be explored and described. Leary also warned of imposing old models and premature theories. Lundborg says that this would have been a good plan if Leary and his people would have implemented it. Conversely, Leary surrounded his concept of the psychedelic experience with a scaffold of Tibetan meditation and psychodynamic imprinting.

Lundborg argues that ‘useful cultural paradigms’ do not materialise because ‘Psychedelia’ was seen as an ‘attribute’ not ‘the central object.’ To counteract this perspective, he proposed that rather than borrowing from the beliefs of mainstream religions or psychology to measure the experience, the experience itself should be the central focus, by which religion and psychology are measured.

Maybe this centralising of the psychedelic experience is what happened during the Eleusinian Mysteries? Maybe religion and psychology were measured by the findings of those who had died before they had died? These are things to consider as we traverse this liminal stage of psychedelics. A new reincorporation stage will have to be carefully designed. Cultural norms and ethical standards will have to be agreed upon. We will all feel the ambiguity, the betwixt and between pangs throughout the process and we will certainly have to call upon the spirit of communitas to see us through.

Psychedelic Safari Book Club

The book for this month is Noumenautics by philosopher Peter Sjöstedt-H. He tells us that we have lived with misinformation about psychedelics for over half a century already. He also says that by the mid-20th century, philosophy of mind was in a reductionist phase. So when interest in psychedelics was on the rise, philosophy was reducing mental states to Logical Behaviorism, and declaring that consciousness was an illusion. Then, when the ‘psychedelics as dangerous drugs’ propaganda developed, all philosophical enquiry ceased. Which is a strange thing, as historically there have been many philosophers who have used mind-altering drugs Sjöstedt-H outlines eleven of them.

Sjöstedt-H also tells us about the Outsight Project, a plan to invite prominent intellectuals of the day to a psychedelic party, the guest list included Einstein and Jung. To the detriment of the psychedelic story, the party never took place. Sjöstedt-H says ‘It was the greatest thing that never happened in psychedelia.’

Sjöstedt-H's book, Noumenautics, opens with, 'Due to the general legal prohibition and modern cultural taboo against psychoactive chemicals, the academic discipline of philosophy has left a potentially bounteous field of enquiry virtually unharvested.'

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Until next time...



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