The Need for Ceremony

Note from the Editors: This article is part III of a III-part series on the use of Psychedelics as viewed from the Right. Read part I, here, and part II, here.


The obvious dangers of Mind-Altering Substances and the Power of Ceremony

“Mutability is the secret gate through which the universal invades the particular.”
— Pico della Mirandola

Pro-psychedelic blogger Rintrah retells the story of Santos and Cayetano Hernandez, petty criminal brothers who in 1962 devised a scam in which they proclaimed themselves prophets and high priests of the “powerful and exiled Inca gods” to the fifty-some impoverished and illiterate inhabitants of the Yerba Buena village in northern Mexico. Using peyote in orgiastic rituals to psychologically control the population, the scheme took a horrific turn after the brothers hired Magdalena Solis, a prostitute from Monterrey, to act in the role of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue. Over the next several months, Solis came to believe that she was really Coatlicue, and began demanding ritual sacrifices. Fifteen people were killed in increasingly elaborate ceremonies of violence over a six-week period in 1963 before the group was finally stopped.

The episode supplies a dramatic illustration of the darker side of psychedelics. As Rintrah puts it: “What starts out as a bizarre scam, under the influence of Peyote appears to transform into a cult that drinks blood and begins dissecting the hearts of living victims to keep an Aztec Goddess incarnated into a prostitute forever young. If you know this, then doesn’t it begin to sound plausible to you, that Peyote played a role in convincing the Aztec elite of the need to sacrifice human beings?”

What role might have they played? Psychedelics, Rintrah argues, and mescaline especially, dissolve the protections of rational consciousness and expose users to the titanic forces beyond it. “When you take psychedelics, you start to become one with nature,” he writes. But “nature has a shadowy side, a place where demons seem to live.” In a closed group, as in Yerba Buena, these unleashed demonic forces aggregate and rapidly intensify. What starts as playful orgies “becomes increasingly sadomasochistic” and culminates in “human sacrifices and cannibalism.” 

Events unfold according to a standard pattern recalling myths. “Through use of psychedelics,” Rintrah writes, “you will find the myths that you are aware of reenacted within time.” It took the Hernadez Brothers only a few months of “heavy use of psychedelics to revive the core of Aztec mythology” despite the fact that the brothers originally claimed they were the priests of Incan Gods from three thousand miles south in Peru. Their initial motivation was purely criminal, and their half-coherent invocation of pre-Columbian mythology completely cynical, but their methods had their own momentum. In a sense, the Aztec Gods, or something like them, used the brothers to revive themselves. But in terms of the specific myths the story reenacts, the best analogy isn’t with the Aztecs, but with the legend of the sorcerer who, after years of futile attempts, finally succeeds in summoning a demon. “I have summoned you, you must do as I command,” the sorcerer says. “On the contrary,” the Demon answers. “It was I who summoned you.”

***

Yerba Buena is not an isolated case. Six years after the death of the Hernadez Brothers and the arrest of Magdalena Solis following a shoot-out with Mexican police in May 1963, a similar tale played out a thousand miles north in California. Like the Hernadez Brothers, Charles Manson was a petty criminal and pimp who used psychedelic drugs to orchestrate a cult that culminated in ritual murder.

The mythos of the Manson Family was an apocalyptic amalgam of American pop culture, rather than a half-understood Amerindian religion, and the group used LSD, rather than peyote, but the psychological structure involved the same elements. Manson himself was conceived as a prophet with magical powers including the power to bring dead birds back to life, while the victims of the Family were conceived as sacrificial “pigs” in unconscious alignment with archaic ritual practices.

Yet focusing on the common role of psychedelics underplays more important elements. Most people who use mind-altering substances don’t become ritual murderers, and collective psychological breakdown to the point of murder clearly in no way requires them. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of cases could be cited: from historical millenarian cults and totalitarian movements, up to and including Antifa political terror cults and the cult of the recent pseudo-pandemic. Here as well, criminal conmen claiming crypto-sacerdotal authority as priest-experts have operationally exercised power through psychologically manipulative rituals to whip the (media) illiterate inhabitants of the global village into a psychotic frenzy. And here too, the operation has resulted in the killing of some of them through the ritual injection of substances known to be dangerous.

Plainly the critical element is not the presence or absence of psychedelic drugs, but a specific structure of group dynamics tending towards ritual violence. These dynamics can and should be conceptualized with respect to individuals too, since individuals, especially alienated, lonely individuals are always also parts of groups. What drives people mad, or restores them to reason? If the problem was as simple as a single substance (or a single ideology, or a single group of people) there wouldn’t be a problem. But even knowing how to frame the problem is uncertain. From “Caligari to Hitler” (or Stalin to Jim Jones), the geometry of cult dynamics has often been analyzed from the point of view of the figure at the top of the pyramid enslaving his followers through sorcery. But this formulation reinforces the logic of alienated personal responsibility which generates these figures in the first place.

The key point concerns how a leader serves as the axis of a structural triangulation of drives: a position that must almost inevitably exacerbate deranged and delusional patterns of thinking. The leader or guru becomes the slave of his followers, whose eyes reflect back at him his own semi-conscious intentions. Hence Charles Manson claimed at his trial for murder that, rather than dominating the Family, he himself was dominated by them. As in an unhappy love affair, both parties come to be enslaved by the other. But acquiring a deeper understanding of how this deadlock operates, up to the point of potentially resolving it, is precisely where psychedelics can be illuminating.

***

To the extent that what is at stake here is something like a natural law of desire, Rintrah’s claim that psychedelics make users “become one with nature” has merit. But it represents a critical error and potentially a fatal temptation to imagine this nature as an external reality existing outside of the user’s own mind. No such reality is accessible, through any means whatsoever, and the most dangerous delusion of all is to believe it is.

In all times and all places, how the world looks is determined by the eye which examines it and the intentions behind this eye, both consciously recognized and unconsciously latent. The world of a thief, for example, is determined by his intention to steal, and the half-submerged network of thoughts and conceptions and needs which compose it. What mind-altering substances reveal is this network: not nature itself, but “the nature of nature” or the “reality of reality” as an ultra-subjective projection, determined by minds through the prism of fantasies, memories, fixations, desires and concepts, from the torrent of data they receive from the senses.

Psychedelics don’t disclose this nature through the revelation of a secret message or a higher vision of the cosmos. Rather, by altering the familiar operations of the mind, mind-altering substances reveal the role of the mind in composing how the world appears. The unconscious became conscious, blindspots become visible, buried memories rise to the surface, and suppressed feelings reactivate. The familiar turns alien, and the artificially constructed nature of the social personality reveals itself from unflattering angles. Obviously, all of this can be highly destabilizing, but whether the experience is positive (because destructive of false certainties and groundless fears) or negative (because inceptive of new delusions and fresh terrors) depends on the circumstances in which it takes place and how it is subsequently framed and interpreted.

In formal, ceremonial contexts the individual charged with this responsibility is the medicine man, or shaman. In recognition of the difficulty and the complexity of this task (which can’t be directly fulfilled, but needs to be somehow indirectly triangulated) this figure was traditionally committed to undergo years of arduous initiation, to purify their own intentions, and to sharpen their perception in general. The problem is channeling collective forces effectively to bring submerged psychological structures into play to repair them, or potentially heighten them: that is, to understand how to improve understanding.

Today, neo-shamanic practices involving traditional substances, above all ayahuasca, tend to theorize this problem through therapeutic conceptions of healing, or through paradigms of awakening. The point of distinction is whether the mind (or the spirit) of an individual is conceived as essentially damaged or essentially nascent. Both formulations have potential benefits, and dangers, so their application is itself a point of judgment. On the one hand, one risks addiction to psychological invalidism, in which trauma can never really be healed, or is even really trying to be healed, but has taken control over the healing process and made it interminable. On the other hand, one risks a form of megalomania in which individuals are drawn into delusions of superhumanity when in reality their position is the one requiring therapy.

But both of these risks also extend beyond psychedelic use and define a more general problem: gaining control over the mind, and the will, so it can be effectively wielded as an instrument. Towards this goal, psychedelics may be helpful or unhelpful, or helpful and then unhelpful. The key point is that, just as anyone attempting a repair job on a semi-functional piece of machinery runs the risk of destroying it totally, using mind-altering substances without understanding them can severely damage your mind.

***

The spectacular psychological breakdowns sometimes associated with the use of mind-altering substances represent the most dramatic example of things going wrong. But this phenomenon should be considered in the context of the problematic environment that characterizes contemporary existence in general. This environment translates into psychedelics both in terms of the experience that users bring to them, and the context in which they are taken. Today, in the “spiritual supermarket” that defines the chaotic global spiritual landscape, mind-altering substances are available as consumer products in circumstances detached from qualified ritual control or psychologically prepared users. The ongoing push for the legalization and commercialization of psychedelic substances in the United States is set to exacerbate this arrangement and generate further wreckage.

But the critical lesson here is nothing to do with psychoactive substances themselves but the fact that contemporary experience is already mind-altering. In technological society, stitched together from elaborate entanglements of psychological mechanisms, every individual is surrounded by an array of psychotropic mechanisms enacting specifically distorting effects on their minds. The influential contemporary academic paradigm of altered states of consciousness in this respect is profoundly misleading since it posits a neutral state of “non-alteration” which does not exist, and if it did, would represent a baseline condition of dysfunction as opposed to regular functioning. The general situation, in short, is not one in which people in general are operating with stable “baseline” mental faculty but a spectrum of more or less functional, and more or less obviously dysfunctional psychological profiles ranging from the somewhat maladjusted to the dangerously psychopathic.

The mind must be trained. This recognition is ultimately what lies at the root of every religious and mythological tradition. The origin of the world is also, in every case, the beginning of the functional mind. Genesis tells the story of the beginning of the emergence of categorical distinctions and divisions separating, for example, the earth from the chaos of “waters” understood as an undifferentiated flood of perceptions. Plato’s Timaeus similarly theorizes the birth of the world from the point of view of the conceptual differentiations of matter. But the creation myth most associated with psychedelics is undoubtedly the Popol Vuh.

Only compiled into a written text following the arrival of the Spanish, the Popol Vuh owes part of its power to the fact that it obviously would have originally been recited orally during nighttime ceremonies around a fire. As members of a community waited for the sun to rise beneath a canopy of stars, a storyteller would describe the evolution of an “instrument for seeing clearly” within the context of the presentation of the birth of man from the confusion and hesitation of Xibala, the void before the world, the place of fear. As the story develops through a series of stages in which first mud men are created (and destroyed) and then wooden men worshiping a false idol of wealth are born, and destroyed, finally, by the first lights of the dawn, real men are born, or reborn through the effects of the lessons imparted over the course of the night. Beyond any question of mind-altering substances, it is the absence of equivalent mind-forming and world-forming ceremonies which today define the spiritual condition of the West. The result is the derangement extending to the highest spheres of power whose effects are everywhere to see.

Daniel Miller is a writer, critic, and IM—1776’s literary editor.


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