Steve Beyer

Erik Davis just posted a glowing review of a new book on ayahuasca: Singing to the Plants by Steve Beyer. While Erik makes the book sound like a must-read, it’s just out and for now is only in pricey hardcover. However, I’ve just been browsing Beyer’s blog, and I’ve quickly become impressed enough to be here pushing you his way.

Since discovering James Hillman’s work, I’ve had a very strong notion that, despite his total avoidance of psychedelics and “altered states”, his approach to psychology has a great deal to offer the modern psychedelic community. The non-Western influences on psychedelic culture have been diverse and profound, with Oriental notions of “enlightenment”, “gurus”, etc. perhaps outweighing the imports from shamanic societies. I’ve no wish to brush these influences aside with a snort of post-colonial disgust—they’re far from unproblematic, but they’re an integral part of our attempts to absorb the impact of these dimensions being unleashed on our barren religious landscape.

But Hillman presents a perspective firmly rooted in the Greek soil that much of our culture is also rooted in, giving it a particular resonance for Westerners (though of course he draws from the sidelines of our history, the Neoplatonists and Romantics). And his core opposition to “developmental psychology”, and the utilitarian narrowness of the quest for a “cure” or linear “growth”, exposes the vanities in our expectations of meditation, psychedelics and magic as much as it critiques modern psychotherapies. Psychedelic culture usually has problems at the other end of the scale from being fixated on a “goal”, too—sometimes it wanders too much. It strikes me that the discipline and diligence in Hillman’s approach to “following the image” is a valuable adjunct to the boundary-corrosion of hallucinogens, a useful position mediating between focus and drift.

Reading Beyer’s account of DMT researcher Rick Strassman’s story, his final paragraph seemed thoroughly Hillmanian to me. Discussing the fact that Strassman was disillusioned that not many of his research subjects seemed to “really change” after their initial rushes of revelation, Beyer remarks:

But is long-term personal change what DMT is even about? With his own preexisting biases, both Buddhist and countercultural, Strassman thought that spiritual transformation was the endpoint of the hallucinogenic experience; he was personally surprised and disoriented by the frequently reported contact with other-dimensional beings. Perhaps the hospital setting was less important than Strassman’s own unmet expectations. Perhaps DMT—like ayahuasca itself—is not a psychotherapist but a teacher, leading where it intends—not to some sort of enlightenment, not to self-improvement, not to community volunteer work; but into the dark and luminous realm of the spirits.

Then, sure enough, Hillman pops up. Beyer’s recent post on the collective unconscious is a brilliant critical summary of the history behind and the issues involved with Jung’s famous notion, which concludes using Hillman’s typically astute assessment of the “archetype” concept.

It’s great to see Hillman embraced within an intelligently psychedelic context. Perhaps not surprising that it’s around ayahuasca. The complex of traditions around this brew are saturated with animism, a perspective that, while Hillman largely avoids terminology that will associate his ideas with indigenous cultures, also saturates his work.

My other highlight so far from the blog is the great little summary of Pierre Clastres‘ work, with some interesting additional notes on the role that sorcery might play in the context of Clastres’ vision of primitive society dispersing itself to avoid the coagulation of the State.

Informed, eloquent and clearly possessing a great depth of experience: this is who we need writing about the boundaries between consciousness and nature.