I want to tell you about my approach to working with psychedelics, because I think I'm breaking new ground. If you or someone you know is working along similar lines, get in touch. I want to talk with you.
For now, at least, I'm calling this approach "phonomancy," meaning "divination via sound." If you're a recreational user, it likely won't appeal to you. If you're someone who's dipping your toe in the psychedelic water via microdosing, or someone who is primarily interested in using psychedelics to treat trauma, depression, or addiction issues, you might find the practice I'm going to describe off-putting or even alarming. That's because phonomancy is not therapeutic--it's augmentative. It's a program for developing supra-normative emotional and spiritual capacities via psychological hormesis. Some risk, pain, and fear are part of the process. But that's the price of transformation.
THE ORIGINAL TWO "S"s
THE ORIGINAL TWO "S"s
In 1961 Timothy Leary coined the term "set and setting" to refer to the influence one's inner and outer environments can have over the psychedelic experience. According to Leary,
Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including his personality structure and his mood at the time. Setting is physical — the weather, the room's atmosphere; social — feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural — prevailing views as to what is real.
In other words, if you dose in a noisy, chaotic, unpredictable environment, it increases the likelihood that you'll become anxious or frightened and have a "challenging" experience. If you dose while upset or depressed, your psychedelic journey will likely reflect that.
Phonomancy proposes that such negative experiences are actually a feature, not a bug, because they offer a chance to test and grow your inner strength--if you engage them with intention and courage. In order to facilitate those opportunities, to "Set" and "Setting" phonomancy adds two more S's: Structure, and Stress.
Generally speaking, the common psychedelic experience (if there can be such a thing) is essentially passive: one takes the medicine, lays down on the maloca mat (or goes for a hike, or attends the Pink Floyd laser show at the Planetarium), and then has an experience dictated by the vicissitudes of events. If you're concentrating on your inner experience, you see what the medicine wants you to see, when it wants you to see it. People put their trust in the wisdom of the plants. They see things and have insights. But that's as far as it goes.
I'm not at all invalidating that time-tested approach when I tell you there's another way: one can work with psychedelic medicines as a training implement, a tool one can learn to manipulate with increasing skill so as to realize specific short- and long-term goals. This requires effort and discipline, two concepts not generally associated with the psychedelic space. But it can be done, it is being done, and I'm increasingly sure this can be--not for everyone, but many--the way forward with psychedelic practice.
In phonomancy, one begins by imposing structure on the experience. By structure I mean an abstract ceremonial organizational schema (Invocation, Processional, Working, etc.), but also a series of concrete tasks to be accomplished.
The first task, which occurs before the journey begins, is to create a playlist of songs that will accompany you every step of the way during the four hours or so of a standard psilocybin trip. (Likely one could apply these concepts to LSD and ayahuasca as well, but I haven't experimentally verified that [yet.])
"Everybody knows psychedelics and music go together like chocolate and peanut butter," you might say. "I listen to The Beatles/psytrance/J.S. Bach's cello suites/Casiocore when I trip. What's new about making a playlist?"
It's not the music, so much as what you do with it. Phonomancy is based on four premises:
- Modern pop and rock songs have all been carefully engineered to create specific emotional states. It might be a certain flavor of heartbreak, a state of psyched-up aggression, a feeling of mystical wonder. They do this through standard compositional techniques of melody, harmony, and timbre, but most especially through lyrics. Song lyrics tell a story that the listener can identify with. They make explicit the emotion the song is trying to evoke. Not that instrumental music can't inspire feelings, but they are often more abstract and subjective than those inspired by a song with words. Whether or not you happen to like Al Green's "How Do You Mend a Broken Heart," it's difficult to misunderstand the mood it's trying to create.
- Mushrooms amplify emotional states.
- By listening to lyric-based music in a psilocybic altered state of consciousness, one can get really into the emotional space of the song. If one keeps one's eyes closed and concentrates, often images will arise in the mind that resonate with that feeling--usually memories from times in one's life when one was in a similar state.
- If you concentrate hard enough, and the dose is high enough, those personal images can shade into the Transpersonal--that is to say, the collective human experience of that emotion, its Jungian archetype. When that happens, an energetic connection is made. What follows is a exponential increase in the intensity of the felt emotion, as well as a corresponding increase in the informational content of one's visionary experiences.
The second task is not just listening to the songs on one's playlist, but actively attempting to "get into" each in turn--that is, really feel the emotion the song is trying to get across in order to achieve trance.
You do this the way you always do--at least, the way you likely do it when you're alone in your car or your bedroom. You sing along. Singing the lyrics with the recorded vocalist allows you to pretend, for the moment, that you are them. This identification--aided by the "magical thinking" enabled by the psychedelic--strengthens with practice into a form of visionary trance, which increases the likelihood of that "archetypal contact" mentioned in the fourth premise.
Another action that can promote trance is dancing. By getting up off the bed or the mat or the couch and moving to the music, one literally embodies the emotion of the song. Again, with practice, the movements of one's body can become a gestural language that express one's inner state.
"Singing and dancing to get in a trance state," the skeptic yawns. "That's what Sufis do, and voodoo practitioners. And in the psychedelic space, that's what Santo Daime is all about. Your so-called phonomancy is nothing new."
That would be true if we stopped there. But the third task of our structural "S" is where phonomancy truly becomes a psycho-spiritual training methodology.
The rise-fall-rise narrative structure of the Hero's Journey has been the template for many Hollywood blockbusters. Successful navigation of its stages often creates an intense experience of catharsis. Usually this is experienced second-hand in the audience via identification with a story's protagonist. In phonomancy, because the participant is going through each emotional state her- or himself, the catharsis is immediate. To successfully navigate a phonomantically-structured psychedelic experience is to literally complete the Hero's Journey.
But wait! There's more!
Stress, in the sense of "a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances," is what "set and setting" was designed to mitigate. And for people using psychedelics as part of a therapeutic attempt to heal old traumas or deal with certain mental health issues, that's important. The wounded and the ill need all the support they can get--the couch in the comfortable office, the headphones playing soothing music, the sitter nearby who can offer a reassuring hand.
The psychologically healthy don't necessarily need that support while they use psychedelics. In fact, they may very well benefit from the opposite of support.
...defined by the stressor type, but rather how one perceives that stressor (e.g. a negative threat versus a positive challenge). Eustress refers to a positive response one has to a stressor, which can depend on one's current feelings of control, desirability, location, and timing of the stressor. Potential indicators of eustress may include responding to a stressor with a sense of meaning, hope, or vigor. Eustress has also been positively correlated with life satisfaction and well-being.(Wikipedia)
Eustress can be understood as being the concept of "hormesis" applied to psychology. Hormesis, a term borrowed from toxicology, means the intermittent application of moderate stress to a system. In biological systems, this usually results in a favorable adaptive response. Think of the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride, who took trace amounts of iocaine powder over time to build up an immunity he would eventually use to defeat a lisping Sicilian in a battle of wits.
If psychedelic therapy is analogous to physical therapy, a practice intended to help the injured to return to normal functioning, then phonomancy is like a strength & conditioning program that is designed to help healthy people develop capacities far beyond the norm. And this is accomplished by the intentional infliction of moderate stress on people in an altered state of consciousness.
To be absolutely clear: this is a program intended to inculcate mastery, not cause harm. Only those who meet a baseline of psychedelic experience and emotional toughness should attempt it. If you've got any doubts, then you're not ready.
Each prescribed phonomantic stressor is cognitive or emotional task to be accomplished while in the medicine state. In the following list they are ordered in terms of increasing complexity/psychological demand. Each should be mastered before attempting the next, in exactly the way one should not try squatting two hundred fifty pounds before handily standing up 225lbs. Incremental progression is the key to success.
- In a controlled, private environment, get comfortable using a minimum effective dose. (Depending on your body size and sensitivity, this could be anywhere between 1.5 and 3 grams.)
- In a controlled, private environment, develop the ability to plan out a structure for the evening (i.e., a playlist), and then the willpower to stick with it while on a minimum effective dose.
- In a controlled, private environment, develop the physical stamina and willpower to be on your feet and dancing on-and-off for three hours or more while on a minimum effective dose.
- In a controlled, private environment, practice moving from emotional state to emotional state by following the emotional targets of the songs in the standard Phonomantic Rite while on a minimum effective dose.
- In a controlled, private environment, practice the psychological tasks dictated by the structure of the Phonomantic Rite, which include a lot of visualizations and heavy Shadow work. This requires a great deal of concentration. Effectively what you attempt is to use the increased imaginative capacity the substantia grants to enter into a state of lucid dreaming--while awake--about particular subjects.
- In a controlled, private environment, over multiple sessions, incrementally increase your dose until you are able to perform tasks 1-5 using one-and-a-half to two times the amount you started with.
- Attend a public performance of a Phonomantic Rite (right now, the first and only example is the First Church of David Bowie Shamanic Cabaret). Use your original minimum effective dose. Negotiate the stressors of being around a group of people and the theatrical aspects of the rite, which will include loud music, costumes designed to provoke a fear response, and narrative sections that invite collective Shadow work.
- Participate in the Rite as a practitioner. Dance. Sing. Remember all the words to the songs. Do the psychological tasks alongside the other participants.
- Participate in the Rite as a practitioner, over multiple sessions incrementally increasing your dose until you are able to perform tasks 7 and 8 using 1.5 times the amount you started with.
- Push your boundaries further by increasing your dosage and by using marijuana, Syrian rue extract, rappe, vaped DMT, etc--all while continuing to execute all assigned tasks. Push your limits to the superheroic and beyond. HOWEVER. Even one off night when you couldn't keep it together and perform all required tasks means resetting back to step 7. DO NOT ADVANCE UNTIL YOU'VE MASTERED THE STAGE YOU'RE AT.
- Eventually, lead a Phonomantic Rite yourself. Walk onstage to sing, dance, run a light show, change costumes, deal with the sometimes challenging internal states that result from trafficking in shamanic reality--all while on a superheroic dose of psychedelic substantia. Be able to move back and forth at will between intense visionary states and complete, sober lucidity.
It's that last one that's the real, practical evidence for the efficacy of the phonomantic approach.
It is my assertion that being able to maintain the level of cognitive and emotional organization necessary to perform a complex theatrical spectacle while under the influence of a very high dose of psilocybin represents a kind of psychological superpower. And yet I also believe it's attainable by anyone willing to put in the work. Here are the benefits, as I've experienced them:
- The first and foremost benefit has been to my own spiritual practice. Being able to walk out on stage on 5g of psilohuasca (mushrooms plus Syrian rue extract) and perform means that I can handle 10g of the same when I'm working privately. 10g of psilohuasca delivers an effective payload of 16-20g of mushrooms alone--as one might expect, this allows you to push deep and access Transcendental Reality as interpreted by one's cognitive model. But one of the great benefits of training phonomantically is that you're able to maintain a near-sober level of lucidity even in those rarefied states. I'm able to maintain my orientation to everyday reality, and more importantly, report in clear and articulate language what it is I'm finding out there. Phonomancy effectively becomes the bathysphere one can ride into the deepest depths.
- I've noticed that the self-control I've developed in the psychedelic space has meant improved executive function in my every day life. When stressors occur, I'm much better at taking that split second to assess my emotional response, and deciding whether or not my the actions my first impulse demands are optimal. I'm not claiming any sort of perfect record of conduct; anybody (even the Buddha, I suspect) has a limit to their abilities and will snap if pushed long and hard enough. But I do have an emotional buffer that was not there before phonomancy.
- Trying to contact archetypes usually begins as a kind of method acting; you try to feel a certain way until you actually do. Once you're in, and that incredible transpersonal energy is surging through you, you find that you can shape it at will; you can explore its various permutations, almost as a singer can try altering timbre and resonance to squeeze different aesthetic effects out of a note. Back in the every day world, I find that my emotional pallet is much broader. I simply know more ways to feel. A non-artist knows "blue," but a painter knows periwinkle, teal, liberty. I now know more flavors of heartbreak than maybe anyone should, but I live in a much richer world, all the same.
- Just in the last two years I've learned how to sing; how to belly dance; I've written, directed, and performed an entire theatrical performance, complete with costumes I've designed and made myself; I've written and published a 550 page book and numerous articles; I've made three-and-a-half hours of video to accompany my Cabaret, all while transitioning my day job into an entirely new career area. It's been an incredible uptick in my creative output, and I credit it entirely to the energies I absorb while doing this phonomantic work.
Phonomancy trains you to maintain complete self-control while accessing ferociously powerfully emotional energies. I'm not being metaphorical here. After doing this practice over eighty times, it's my conclusion that emotion = energy = Spirit. The Goddess experiences emotion, is emotion, and what we feel is merely the palest reflection of those states.
If you get really into a particular emotional state while under the influence of a (super)heroic dose of psychedelic substantia, you can connect to the collective human experience of that emotion--that is, its archetype.
Archetypes are not mere concepts, but energetic structures (for lack of a better term) in transpersonal consciousness with which one can engage.
Just to grab the first quote that came up when I ran a Google,
In Man and His Symbols, Jung explains that archetypes 'are the pieces of life itself—images that are integrally connected to the living individual by the bridge of the emotions.' When you experience an emotion, it is the emotion of an archetype. Different archetypes evoke different emotions.And different emotions evoke different archetypes. How can you tell if your phonomantic efforts have succeeded? Oh, you'll know. The archetype effectively detonates in your consciousness, often unleashing a very strong visceral sensation of waves of force rippling through your body like a gravitic wind, which in turn triggers visionary experiences of odd, occult images, symbols, and creative inspiration.
I believe that energy that you're feeling in that state is identical to the Hindu conception of shakti. Shakti is...
...the active power or manifest energy that pervades all of existence and is represented in feminine names and forms.If you can imagine that energy as an infinite ocean of raging white light, then understand that the light is LOVE, which is to say, the Sat Chit Ananda (Being, Consciousness, Bliss) that is the Divine's eternal condition, then you might be able to take the analogy a little further and imagine that you can prismatically diffuse a basically endless spectrum of emotion from that love, just as you can visible and invisible light from the radiation of the sun.
By focusing that high voltage emotion on an image held in the imagination, one either deliberately chosen or one that arises spontaneously from the unconscious, you can have the experience of that Deity incarnating in your consciousness. It's kind of like holding up a stained glass window to the light of dawn. In plain language: the Goddess will talk to you. You can relate to Her as a Person. That's really the point of phonomancy: it makes consistently available that kind of peak experience. It can be so overwhelming that its "reality" is a moot point. It feels absolutely real. It has real effects on your body. It will change you.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this literal miracle grows more convincing the higher the dose you're working with. All the training that phonomancy imposes is ultimately focused on this goal: an up-close-and-personal tête-à-tête with the divinity of your choice. It's a set of techniques that makes the Beatific Vision available to the modern person who doesn't have the option (or the desire) to spend decades in isolated contemplation. Phonomancy can help return the mystical experience to its rightful place at the center of religious practice.
What phonomancy offers is a practical method for achieving self-actualization. When I read lists of the characteristics of self-actualized people, it really seems that these days I embody many, if not all, of them in a way I simply did not three years ago. It is this deep work of laboring to complete challenging cognitive and emotional tasks while under the psychic load of heavy doses of psychedelic medicine that seems to have made the difference.