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Tracing the spiritual history of psychedelics with a shaman

We talk to a 21st-century warlock about the transformative power of ketamine, how MDMA changed attitudes in Thatcher’s Britain, and raving as a modern ritual

Once upon a time, Britain was a vast forest. Spirits emanated from the soil, rocks and trees had souls, and magic mushrooms carpeted our green and pleasant land. In our earliest days as a species, we developed shamanic ritual structures around the spirits of plants, celebrating the spiritual beauty they brought us through chemically altered states of consciousness. 

Needless to say, our drug-taking habits have changed quite a bit, from our primordial ancestors’ techniques to today’s shovelling of substances in grotty club toilets. And while many other indigenous traditions survive – such as Native American peyote circles and African Bwitists’ use of Iboga tree bark – most European spiritual drug traditions have mostly been buried. So how do you recreate new versions of these rituals for the 21st century?

As an academic specialising in psychedelic drugs, Julian Vayne published the first ever accounts of the explicitly ritualised, spiritual use of ketamine. As an occultist for over 30 years, Vayne has performed ceremonies ranging from Amazonian ayahuasca shamanism to Wiccan spell casting. He fuses magickal practices with psychedelic drugs, which he sees as medicine to allow revelatory contact with the sacred, or simply with oneself.

On the 50th anniversary of the summer of love and ahead of his latest book publication, Getting Higher, a manual of how to reach spiritual enlightenment through drugs, we spoke about how to explore a deeper side to drugs, smoking as a prayer form, and about smearing yourself in shit as a satanic rite.

“When MDMA entered our culture, we responded by creating a ritual, and the ritual was called the rave” – Julian Vayne

How did you come to use psychedelic drugs in your magickal practice?

Julian Vayne: I wasn’t part of any psychedelic community as a young man, so my first experiences were very much framed by my engagement with ceremonial magic. I had a classic, foolish, youthful cock-up, where someone had given me some LSD. Of course, I had no idea how big LSD might be. I swallowed what I thought was half a tab, which turned out to be two because the design was one where you get four together. After I’d then munched all of them, I found myself in this powerful state. I found that the ways of using ritual that I’d learned – visualisation, meditation, breath work – were really helpful for navigating the psychedelic experience.

Why would someone want to ‘get higher?’

Julian Vayne: In my experience, there are so many reasons. They may want healing, they may want to investigate some particular thing, they may want to enhance their creativity, or they may want to explore how it feels to die. Then there’s the magical kind of parapsychological stuff that you might either experience or deliberately explore. 

How would you explain the difference between recreational drug taking and your practices?

Julian Vayne: We in western Europe don’t have ancient traditions like, say, the peyote circle of Native American peoples. But when MDMA entered our culture, we responded by creating a ritual, and the ritual was called the rave. I don’t personally make a huge discrimination between the idea of recreational and religious or spiritual use. If you experience great empathy or something pleasurable or transformative that feeds your soul, I think that should also be considered a legitimate experience. It’s not a case where I think that drugs should only be for po-faced individuals sitting in magic circles wearing funny hats. These things are much bigger, much more important than that.

You’ve written about using ketamine in a ritual setting, which is surprising, because it doesn’t tend to have associations with higher mind states. How does that work?

Julian Vayne: Ketamine is closely associated with people with snot hanging out their nose, dribbling on the edge of the dance floor. In ritual use, after experiencing the obliteration of consciousness, the trip consists of observing your own consciousness coming back online. That’s a moment of rebirth, which is quite commonly embedded in many other psychedelic drugs. 

How have drugs helped you? 

Julian Vayne: I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, so I was part of the generation who were really despondent about the world. Nuclear armageddon was just around the corner. When MDMA came along it really changed that story. Psychedelics allow people to see the interconnectedness, that everything we do informs everything else or, as magicians would say: ‘As above so below, as within so without.’ One might be hopeful that that leads to less short-term, fear-based responses to the world. We should view these as powerful medicines that can transform us. We can have respectful, good relationships with these substances if we do a bit of work for it.

“I was part of the generation who were really despondent about the world. Nuclear armageddon was just around the corner. When MDMA came along it really changed that story” – Julian Vayne

What would you suggest as a first step to someone who wanted to take their drugs to a ‘deeper’ level?

Julian Vayne: Although dose is a factor, mindset and setting are the real keys; you can get higher with less drugs. You can use techniques like breath work, ritual, meditation, body work, singing, or artistic practice. All of this stuff can get more bang for your buck.

Or you might simply learn a practice like mindfully smoking. In some Native American traditions, tobacco is used as an opportunity to make a prayer. You might be having a nice evening at a rave, but then decide that at some point you would like to make a prayer. This can be an opportunity to say thank you to the universe, fortune, the gods, whatever you want to call it. You can think of that as a neuro-hack if you like, or you can think of it as connecting with some universal spirit. What matters is engaging in a very thoughtful way with the fact that you are on this stuff, whatever the stuff happens to be. It’s a call to being present in the moment.

You also use human shit in a lot of your rituals. What gives?

Julian Vayne: Ah, that was a ritual of invocation, or a possession of Baphomet, which represents the sum total of the psychic force of all life on earth, a mashup of life forms, and an outpouring of that energy. It is also any associated images, which can include Eliphas Levi’s classic, scaly, winged goat figure with female breasts and a phallus. I was working with a group of magicians to create a dramatic structure to get into a possessed state and break through to the wildness of that spirit. I was presented with what appeared to be, at the time, faeces, and took that and smeared it over myself, as a transgressive act. But it wasn’t actually faeces, it was whipped cream or something. But it could have been.

Getting Higher: The Manual of Psychedelic Ceremony, written by Julian Vayne and illustrated by Pete Loveday, is out now