Beauty And Awe And Psychedelics And Monkeys

So there I was the other night, deep in a YouTube hole, feeling its algorithms clank and churn and some video loaded and began to play and it changed the course of my evening. It seemed pretty inauspicious, just a bunch of people taking turns to look at a painting. But as I watched something strange happened.


Fifteen seconds in the hairs on my arm began to stand on end, a minute later my eyes were wet with tears, and by the end my face had cracked into some sort of cubist jumble. With salty cheeks I gathered myself and wondered what the hell was going on.

The eyes of these people were trained on the Salvator Mundi, a painting of seismic historical importance once thought lost, but after cleaning and restoration, newly attributed to Leonardo de Vinci.

The hype was real.

It was sold at auction by Christie’s New York, and for two weeks prior people queued in the rain the length of entire blocks to catch a glimpse of it. The painting the size of a lunch tray went for £450m, the most expensive artwork ever sold. Then disappeared.


I watched the video a few more times to try and recapture the emotion I’d felt, which came easily, and resolved to get to the bottom of this thing. What had I reacted to, what was it. Awe in the face of supreme beauty? Why would that move me to tears. Why do we have a strange physiological reaction to beauty.

Where does awe come from. What purpose does it serve.


*

Eight million years ago a group of chimpanzees making their way through the African savanna stooped to pick up a mushroom. They found more and ate a bunch and again strange things started to happen.


The stoned ape theory claims that chimps experimenting with different food groups led them to psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms, which upon ingestion began to radically alter their behaviour. Over millions of years the mushroom trips led to heightened vision, the invention of language, harnessing of fire, and some argue the inexplicable doubling of the human brain size.

Scientists don’t really buy the stoned ape theory. But an early hominid getting high is still meaningful, in that it must’ve been the first instance of the elevation of the animal brain into the realms of the transcendent. The first time a living thing might’ve been aware of something far bigger than itself, and felt awe.


Scientists now think psychedelics were behind all prehistoric cave art. Without doubt the psychedelic experience has been responsible for the birth of religions and profound leaps in cultural evolution.


When Picasso clambered out of Lascaux cave in 1949 after seeing the bulls and lions and rhinoceros that had lain undiscovered in their darkness for 17,000 years, he exclaimed in wonder at his ancestors… we have invented nothing.

But what do psychedelics have to do with looking in awe at a Leonardo.

Turns out the neurochemistry in the brain is identical. When the brain experiences awe, the default mode network, the part which allows multiple brain regions to interact with each other simultaneously, gets cranked up.


The brain switches its focus to the right hemisphere, the part responsible for imagination and intuition, and what results is a feeling of deep connection to the world. Awe has been called ‘the perception that is bigger than us’. On psychedelics, the same part of the brain is activated.


Early humans eating a bunch of mushrooms and staring at the heavens would’ve encountered mystical experiences completely outside their daily remit of hunting and gathering and finding shelter. Inspiring them to create representations of what they saw on the walls of caves.

But why.


Why do we have a capacity for awe and mystical experience.

Why did watching a bunch of people in New York be so affected by a painting make all the hairs on my neck stand on end, piloerection, the same thing that happens to a cat when it sees a particularly big dog, and reduce me to a blubbering wreck. How did it improve my life.

Victor Frankl, the neurologist who wrote Man’s Search For Meaning about his time in the concentration camps, thought awe was about meaning. Beyond personal responsibility, he thought we could face up to the demands of existence through a loving dedication to beauty.

‘Imagine you are sitting in a concert hall and listening to your favourite symphony, and your favourite bars of the symphony resound in your ears, and you are so moved by the music that it sends shivers down your spine, and now imagine it would be possible for someone to ask you in this moment whether your life has meaning. I believe you would only be able to give one answer, and it would go something like ‘it would have been worth it to have lived for this moment alone!”


*

The splashes of beauty around us, thought Frankl, were there to pit against the one constant in life the Buddha spoke of, the fact of our suffering. That what touches us deeply might lift us out of our drudgery for a brief moment to remind us that all is not so hopelessly lost, if only we look hard enough.

Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on cottonwoods
Leaves floating on trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless skies

The unexpected smile from the bus driver. The floated echo of the empty church. The smell of the air after new rain, the lick of condensation on the pint glass, the Jack Wilshere goal against Norwich someone uploaded to Pornhub.


*

Maybe the question is not why we have the capacity for awe, but why we walk around so blind to beauty. There are those who see too much beauty, who grapple all their lives with it. They look and look and look and report back on what they have seen.


Artists remind us that everything however small or insignificant is worthy of infinite attention. Their lesson is this. All that there is, can be found exactly where you are, always. We are everything, and everything is us, and so the finite becomes infinite. The psychedelic lesson is the same.

What Blake meant when he wrote:

To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Being in a permanent awe-addled state might be slightly inconvenient, given that we would forget to eat and probably starve. So the brain has a prefrontal cortex. The linear, logical, problem-solving part of the brain, the 18 stone bouncer manning the doors of perception, hellbent on sleep and food and survival.


Working overtime while the larger parts of our brain remain mostly dormant. Freezing out the default mode network from making its connections. Fencing us off from the sublime because we could not reside there. Perhaps in the end, awe is the transcendent slipping through the cracks.


‘It was an April day’ wrote Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD by chance and dedicated his life to the study of it, ‘and going out into the garden I saw it had been raining during the night. I had the feeling that I saw the earth and the beauty of nature as it had been when it was created, at the first day of creation. What an experience! I was reborn, seeing nature in quite a new light.

Go to the meadows, go to the garden, go to the woods. Open your eyes!’


*

Eight million years ago a hungry chimp ate a mushroom and pulled back the veil and got the party started, and here we are. Strange living things carrying inside us a bizarre capacity for mystical experience. Nature, psychedelic plants, meditation, outstanding works of art and literature and music, love, from inside them the unknown shines out, sparking an ember inside us.

Pushing us out to meet something bigger than ourselves. A sense of connection to the universe that is normally far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness. But is there all around us, always, if we keep our eyes open wide and learn how to look.

A portal to the divine.


Or perhaps the Divine reaching down to brush us with the tip of a finger.

A Shock First Meeting with A Plant Medicine

And above all watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you.

Because the greatest secrets are hidden in the most unlikely places.

Those who do not believe in magic will never find it.


*

At the end of the summer in the middle of a wood in the south of Holland I sat for two nights in the pitch black of a cabin under the watchful eye of a shaman and drank a powerful brew concocted by the ancient tribes of the Amazon. 

The Vine of the Soul, the Vine of the Dead, Ayahuasca, a dark green gloop made up of the leaves of one plant and the vine of another found in opposite ends of the jungle, boiled together to make a plant medicine, a sacred healing power used by these tribes for some say thousands of years.

Ingested independently of one another the plants are broken down quickly in the digestive tract and have no effect. Mixed together and boiled down into a liquid and ingested, one small cupful can elicit journeys of the mind, experiences of the spiritual and the mystical, and realisations of such scale they can change the course of lives.

When the Amazonian tribes were asked how they knew to combine the two, how on earth they had landed on the right combination from the 70,000-odd species found growing in the jungle, they were known to reply simply… the plants told us.

Seven strangers, having just met, inside a cabin sat together in a circle, our shaman explaining to us we had been brought there for a reason. The medicine had called us there. We were asked to trace our journey back to its inception and describe it to the present moment, as we listened to one another’s stories we felt more connected, not only to each other but to the place. Our differing paths had somehow conspired to lead us there, to sit with one another at that exact point in time, to share in an experience which was to bind us.

There were to be two ceremonies, on consecutive evenings, which would involve the drinking of the medicine and then sitting in darkness for five hours while it took effect, amid silence and the soft beat of the fire, and the intermittent backdrop of the medicine music known as the icaros.

Walking in the woods outside the cabin moments before the first ceremony, I stooped down to pick up an acorn from the forest floor. I was excited but not nervous, since I had no idea whatsoever to expect. I had nothing to go on other than accounts I had read, and the weight of the experience I was about to have was as foreign to me as the waking life of a person I had never laid eyes on. I clenched the acorn in my hand hard, summoning a strength I anticipated I would need, and put it in my pocket.

For two nights I was plunged into worlds which language seems incapable of expressing. I’m not sure we have the requisite words to capture what I saw. For as soon as I try the visuals themselves become overly simplified. There were colours and hues of all kinds of a sharpness and luminosity which I’d never seen, morphing, ebbing and flowing into one another.

Geometric patterns and shapes endlessly twisting and dissolving into each other at huge speeds. Mandalas and spirals and cathedrals of light, endless space, and memories from my life floating in and out of reach, recreated in such precision and detail that I was able to peer in and investigate them from all angles like a museum exhibit.

Our shaman had told us that the spirit of the medicine, Mother Ayahuasca, shows one what one needs to see, when one needs to see it. Around the darkened room, my fellow brothers and sisters – for the harmony and deep feeling of communion brought on by the medicine made them feel something like kin – were each on their own journeys.

Some gasped and gurgled and laughed giddily in the manner of young children, some cried softly in new understanding, some cried from joy, some stared silently into the light of the fire, and all around the room we were vomiting into our buckets, vomiting out the pain that had lodged itself inside us. If one of us was purging, we were purging for each other. And this purging brought relief for the individual and collectively for us all.

And as we did the songs of the shaman and the voices of the musicians swam in and out of our consciousness. The medicine came in waves, taking over my senses on all fronts, just as we had been told it would. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. It bombarded me, demanding complete surrender to it.

And as it did it stripped away layer upon layer of my shit, the shit that I had packed onto myself, it cleaned me, rejuvenated me, and gave me a vision of life, not a new one but an ancient one, existing eternally beyond the muck and the pain and the self-loathing that we cling to in order to translate our own pain.

It was a kind of paradise.

Writhing in the darkness trying to contain the energy cursing through my body, clinging onto my pillow like a lifebuoy, I found my hand inside my mouth, that I was sucking on all my fingers, drooling laughing crying and wretching all at once. Feeling a profound calm and a joy. Three days later I would realise I had been a baby, physically inhabiting a state of innocence and simplicity I had not encountered for 34 years.

The medicine seemed intent on showing me to myself. I was shown myself from a distance, walking into a pub. I was a fly on the wall, a spy in the corner, watching myself interact with people. I could see it was me, I recognised that face, not the face reflected in the mirror but the face I see in photos, familiar to me yet alien, and still, watching myself was beholding a person I’d never laid eyes on. I was good natured, enthusiastic, focussed on the other person, I was smiley, quick to laugh, I was playful, I was curious, I was alright, I thought.

I’m alright.

It has been said that to know oneself is to encounter oneself in action with another person. This was being shown to me now, in surround-sound HD. And the words rolled across my mind like a message rolling across an LCD display. Perhaps this is who you really are. Perhaps this is who you really are. Perhaps this is who you really are. The version of me that I had set in stone had revealed its weak spot. And the medicine was a chisel, working away at its edges, ready to break it to pieces.

Why are you so hard on yourself. Why do you beat yourself up all the time. You’re not an arsehole. You’re a beautiful person. I don’t have to beat myself up all the time. Is this real. Could I be free from this. What might life be like if I wasn’t so hard on myself. How might you go about your day without turning all this stuff back on you. You don’t need to be constantly aware of what other people want. You can be who you want to be. It’s okay to be. Okay to just feel things. You don’t have to be so scared all the time. Do the things that make you feel good. What is this. What does it mean. What does this all mean. It’s too powerful. Let go. Release yourself. Stop trying to control it all. Surrender. You’re allowed to feel whatever you feel. Whatever you want to feel. You are loved.

Just be.

In the throes of all this, lying horizontally under a huge canopy of green, at one point the soft underbelly of an enormous serpent filled my whole vision, a light brown scaled skin moving over me, slithering up to me on my right hand side, blinking at me with an enormous eye that emanated a warm and benevolent energy. And quickly it kissed me on the cheek, stealing a kiss almost, before slithering away again down and out of my vision.

That night I went to bed with the lightness of a five year old in a state of bliss, raw uncut.

And the next morning I awoke into a new world.

*

It is very easy to dismiss all this. Because I did.

Before the weekend was finished, a fear began to mount in me that what I had seen was an illusion, that my visions and realisations were not real, the precise details of which I was beginning to forget, that I would soon forget all of it. And simultaneously from stage-left, a slowly creeping cynicism began to wind its way into my brain.

Once back in London, I found my inner voice growing more and more bitter, instead of feeding off the harmony the medicine had revealed to me, I was more disconnected from people than ever, I felt jaded and distant and embattled.

I became sad and low, I saw London as a gnarled den of sham, drudgery and broken dreams, of people killing themselves with excess, of the homeless on the street ignored and wasting away in front of our eyes. And I understood for the first time the meaning in the idea that the cynic is the idealist who has had his heart broken.

I had been shown a version of paradise. And real life was shattering it to pieces. Our shaman had warned us about integration, the process of coming back from what we had seen, and the likelihood of it being far from easy. Your experience will slowly begin to fade, he had said. You can keep it alive by engaging in spiritual practices, by keeping yourself centred, by trying to remember all the things you have learned.

*

So what was real.

I can tell you what I know. In the space of three days, I saw seven people go through a process of enlightenment that shook them to their very core, that took years off them, that grounded them deeply in an understanding of their lives, that they had hitherto been unable to attain.

I heard them share deep truths about themselves, revealing their vulnerabilities like gaping wounds, I saw people being returned to an innocence that at some point down the line they had parted ways with. An innocence perhaps we have all lost, something we know is deeply nested inside us, but have forgotten how to look for.

I saw a vision of the world stripped of the superficial things that try to muffle it. No rules, no systems of rationalisation, no pigeon-holing, no ego. Things as they are, and as they always have been. Song as an expression of joy when talking won’t suffice. Dance as the same expression when one can no longer stand still. An ancient language speaking up to us from the very loins of the earth. Preaching one thing above all others.

Love.

We are just human beings, spoke the voice, eternal souls in a human body, wanting to live in peace with one another, wanting to love each other, and be with each other, in harmony. I learnt that everything is love. Pain is love. Fear is love. It is all part of the same thing. The one binding force of the earth that unites us all in the face of our suffering. For my part I learnt that I was lovable, that I am loved, that I can love.

That perhaps we see the world from behind the bars of our own ego, one that tricks us and deceives us and deludes us. And somehow there are substances that break down these barriers, drawing across the curtain for us to see things as they are.

Maybe with all our intelligence and our civilisation and our distractions, we’re missing out on ancient signals from the earth, messages from the natural world that we’re not picking up anymore, as if the earth literally does speak to us. If we care to listen, the right answers are there, waiting.

Imagine a waiter showing up with a silver platter, empty-looking to the naked eye, but on it lies this way of seeing. The world as I have just described. Would you care for a serving, sir? he asks. Not right now, I’m trying to live. True to form, he waits. Patiently by your side, unobtrusively, fading into the background. Don’t mind me sir, I’ll be here for the foreseeable future. This dish doesn’t get cold. It’s here if you want it.

It’s always here.


*

At times now, I feel far away from it all. Back in the glare of the lights and the horns and the endless distraction. The impatience and the fear and the narrow joy. That world, the spirit realm, the vine of the soul, it can seem far away. But it is there. The waiter is always there, by your side, with his platter. Ready and waiting to serve you up a portion.

A portion of a way of seeing the world, as it truly is. This could all be a bit of a stretch for some. Perhaps it would’ve been for me at some point. But one thing is also true. That those accused of madness can level the same at their accusers. Funny that.

There really is a magic in the world.

Like really.