Consciousness-changing plants

Consciousness-changing plants

October 10, 2021 0 By Rick

I just finished reading a mind-blowing book about our reliance on plants for several things besides food. It’s called “THIS IS YOUR MIND ON PLANTS: OPIUM – CAFFEINE – MESCALINE,” by Michael Pollan. I was a bit surprised that he included caffeine with the other plants that induce some degree of altered states, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was spot on. I start my day a couple of cups of strong coffee (tea for others) to help dissipate my mental fog, get focused and gear up for the day. Some even refer to coffee as a cup of optimism and concentrated sunshine. I never considered myself to be addicted to caffeine or to think of it as a drug. But I use it every day and am a grumpy old man without it – some would argue even with it. Does that sound like a drug to you? It sure does to me. Anyway, it got me thinking about how difficult it is to define the term drug. Let’s face it, caffeine enhances performance, which is why the Olympic Committee nearly placed it on the list of performance-enhancing drugs. So, let’s take a closer look at the three plants.

Remarkable plants
Pollan goes on to explain these remarkable plants and what’s in them in depth. The opium poppy gives us morphine and is generally considered to be a “downer.” My personal experience with morphine and morphine-based painkillers after numerous operations confirms this. Coffee and tea contain caffeine, which most will agree is an “upper.” Mescaline, produced by the peyote and San Pedro cacti, is an “outer,” according to Pollan. Another way to classify them is as a sedative, a stimulant and a hallucinogen, he explains. So, why do humans use plants (and other artificial substances not covered here) to change consciousness? If you’re bogged down in a monotonous life, using these substances can relieve boredom and provide new sensations and thoughts. For example, the appeal of “expanding” your world while physically confined to home during the pandemic might be attractive. If you’re looking to enhance sociability, substances that gratify this desire could be just what you need. And caffeine will stimulate you and improve your concentration.

Indigenous cultures
The spiritual or ceremonial use of plant drugs has been with us for centuries. There is hardly a culture that hasn’t discovered and used at least one such plant (or fungus) to alter consciousness in one way or another. “In many Indigenous communities, the ceremonial use of peyote (a psychedelic) reinforces social norms by bringing people together to help heal the traumas of colonialism and dispossession,” Pollan writes. These cultures have identified plants that relieve physical pain, make us more alert, fuel our imagination, make us more social, produce feelings of ecstasy and elicit dreams, visions or mystical experiences. Pollan says that traditional cultures understand the power of these substances and never use them casually. They recognize that should always be used “with intention, surrounded by ritual and under the watchful eye of experienced elders. This includes the use of mescaline and ayahuasca.

Humans have been raising opium poppies for nearly 6,000 years. The ancient Sumerians called the poppy “the flower of joy.” For the Greeks and the Romans, the poppy flower represented the sweetness of sleep and the prospect of death. In the Victorian era, you could find an opium preparation known as “God’s own joy” in most medicine cabinets. Poppy tea was (maybe still is) served at funerals in the Middle East to help make the sadness go away. During prohibition in the US, certain forms of opium were legal. It is said that members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union would relax at the end of the day after crusading against alcohol with a beverage called “women’s tonics,” whose active ingredient was laudanum – opium! And if you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, you might remember the scene where Dorothy and her pals passed out in a field of scarlet poppies. Hmmm, I wonder what that symbolized? What is true about all medicines that plants provide is that they are both allies and poisons at the same time. The onus is on us to develop a healthy relationship with them.

It turns out that caffeine is one of the most studied psychoactive compounds in the world, yet few of us think of it as a drug. But close to 90% of us ingest caffeine regularly, making it the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world. It’s also the only psychoactive drug we give children, usually in the form of soda. Maybe it’s not the infamous sugar rush we see in over-active children? Pollan calls being caffeinated an altered state, but nearly all of us share it. It’s practically invisible to us. While caffeine is a chemical, we’re really talking about two plants: Coffea and Camellia sinensis (tea). Everyone knows what a coffee break is, and most of us have participated in one. Have you ever wondered why it’s a coffee break and not a tea break (except perhaps in Great Britain)? It appears to have been popularized by an advertising campaign in 1952 by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau. Just think about this. The ubiquitous coffee break is the only time you get paid by an employer to do nothing and imbibe a drug.

Peyote is a small, spineless cactus, and the active ingredient in peyote is the hallucinogen mescaline. For most of us in the West, peyote is an obscure, little-known psychedelic. But to Native Americans affiliated with the Native American Church, it’s a precious sacrament. The church is believed to have as many as 500,000 members, and the number of peyote ceremonies is also on the rise. Native American Church meetings occur when a local leader believes there is a reason to meet, such as to heal someone who is sick, help someone with an addiction, resolve a dispute, or even send a soldier off to war. Native Americans believe peyote growing wild is a gift from the Peyote Spirit. Comanche chief Quanah Parker said, “The white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus, but the Indian goes into his tepee and talks to Jesus.” I first heard about mescaline while studying cultural anthropology at Arizona State University. It is, however, the oldest known psychedelic and has been used by the Indigenous cultures of North America for some 6,000 years. “Mescaline is also the first psychedelic to be studied by science and ingested by curious Westerners,” according to Pollan. Similar to other psychedelic compounds, the mescaline in peyote brings on a state of mental plasticity, one in which you’re open to learning new patterns of thought and behavior. It’s a state where you become highly suggestible. This helps you to rid yourself of rigid, negative stories about yourself to construct new ones. 

The word trauma is used quite a bit today. Native American healers believe that trauma “settles in your body and blocks energy. If we don’t acknowledge or address this, it will fester and lead to addictions and even physical diseases such as cancer. These healers believe that plant medicines help bring hidden traumas to the surface to be worked through. “Mescaline doesn’t heal you by itself. It’s not like ayahuasca, which will grab hold of you and take you on a journey whether you want to go or not. This medicine doesn’t put anything inside of you. But if you invite it in, it helps you reveal what is already there, and in that way, engages you in healing yourself. I’ve seen miracles,” is how one healer described using mescaline. At 74, my drug-taking and altered states are well behind me – not that I don’t sometimes fondly recall them for the insights, visions, enlightenment, relaxation and ecstasy they gave me. The only poppies I consume now (aside from the morphine-based painkillers in conjunction with operations) come on a bagel or a Kaiser roll. Maybe it’s time to take a walk on the wild side again. Who knows what I might discover? I only covered a fraction of what Michael Pollan writes about in his amazing book, “THIS IS YOUR MIND ON PLANTS: OPIUM – CAFFEINE – MESCALINE,” so check it out. It’s a great read.