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Looking Beyond the Psychedelic Renaissance

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Looking Beyond the Psychedelic Renaissance

On November 3, Erik Davis, Maria Mangini, and Christian Greer launched The Chalice, a new psychedelic salon that will take place on the first Wednesday of each month at The Alembic in Berkeley, California. With a wariness towards the business and medicalization conversations in the psychedelic space, the hosts planted a flag to revive the ethos of pre-psychedelic renaissance gatherings where interdisciplinary seekers met to discuss the philosophical, esoteric, and creative dimensions of psychedelics without centering careerist considerations.

Sick of Psychedelics

“I’m kind of sick of psychedelics,” Davis quipped in his opening remarks, earning cathartic applause from the eighty person, standing-room crowd. Davis believes that current psychedelic discourse is insufficient to fully examine the multidimensional subject. “If you’re really going to engage psychedelics, you’ve gotta be a generalist,” he said. “You gotta be ready to take on history, psychology, ethnography, anthropology, poetry, religion. Economy, for sure. Oh, and chemistry, neuroscience. Only groups can do this. Only multidimensional events can do this.”

“We’re at this very strange place of trying to come up with the appropriate languages to wrap our heads around these mysteries,” Davis said. He believes this “produces a desire for some kind of cultural framework that can actually take on this complexity.” The panel was united against the idea that the emerging industry framework of psychedelics was up to the task. “The psychedelic renaissance ain’t forever,” said Greer, anticipating it coming to a “crashing close” where “a lot of swindlers will be left high and dry.” 

Greer expressed alienation from the current psychedelic mainstream, describing an “us and them” atmosphere that centers “the sages on the stage who dole it out, often complicit with the pharmacological narrative about psychedelics being therapeutic” to the exclusion of more nuanced, esoteric, animistic, and non-Western points of view.

Mangini, whose relationship with psychedelics began with a 1966 acid trip at the age of sixteen, said her long involvement grants her perspective to see repeating patterns that are cause for alarm, especially the threat of media-fueled moral panic. She cited the shifts in news coverage of the attempted airplane crash by off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph Emerson. Mangini noted that his self-declared recent use of psilocybin mushrooms became more prominent as the story advanced through the media ecosystem, reminding her of the stories about LSD causing users to jump from windows in the late sixties.

“The mass media has the metabolism of a hamster and it needs to eat twice its weight every day just to stay alive,” Mangini said. “Once something has been thoroughly, enthusiastically, and sometimes very appreciatively chewed up by that process, the thing that is metabolically active still needs to consume something else. Once you’ve used up all the superlatives, the tendency is to start using the other end of the language spectrum on the same thing,” she warned. “I have seen this happen before,” Mangini said, “and I find it a little scary and a little creepy.”

Seeking New Stories

The Chalice’s three hosts represent different generations of psychedelics expertise. Mangini, known among psychedelic cognoscenti as Hidden Mountain, is a nurse-midwife who holds a Ph.D. in community health nursing and describes herself as “the only person in the history of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic to have been a barefoot patient, the lead clinician in one of the medical sections, and the chair of the board of directors.” Mangini also co-founded the Women’s Visionary Council, a nonprofit organization that amplifies the voices of elders and women who work with psychedelics. She is a long-time resident of the Hog Farm and staff member at Camp Winnarainbow.

Davis entered the psychedelic community in the 1990s and is well-known for his books TechGnosis and High Weirdness, and as the host of the long-running podcast series Expanding Mind. Davis holds a Ph.D. in religious studies and writes about the intersection of consciousness, spirituality, and creativity with a mix of rigor and humor that illuminates the tension between the sacred and the strange embedded in many aspects of psychedelic culture. He is a co-founder of The Alembic.

Greer is a scholar of Religious Studies and American culture specializing in psychedelic religion and spirituality who teaches at Stanford University. He holds an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School and a PhD in Western Esotericism. Greer seeks a broader aperture for understanding psychedelics. “I think that for the last fifty years we have had a total misrepresentation of what psychedelics are, where they come from, and what they do,” he said. “I’m convinced a master narrative is being pushed,” Greer said, centering Western male figures including Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, and others, to the exclusion of more diverse and global voices. “When I see a documentary on Netflix about mushrooms or psychedelic therapy it’s just like – this is mind control! I can’t handle it! There are other stories out there,” he said.

The pursuit of those stories is central to the intention of the new salon series. “We are at a point where there should be tremendous emphasis on recovering stories from the underground,” Davis said. “From the perspective of the rootless West, people are looking at the indigenous traditions that have kept many of these plants and practices alive with a great deal of longing. We want to know and hear more from that situation.” Davis said the Western psychedelic underground also offers “if not an equivalent tradition, a rich body of lore, practices, concepts, humor, text, music, art, and stories among people who are still with us, though to be frank, not for terribly much longer. It’s passing, and in some ways, it’s the best we have.”

Community Standards

“The primary thing we’re doing here is just hanging out,” Davis said, stressing that the point of the event was to foster community among “people who have taken psychedelics.” He said the hosts were inspired by turn-of-the-century conferences where the primary allure was finding other people with a serious and dedicated interest in psychedelics. “The people who wanted to be there really wanted to be there. They gained nothing by being there. If anything, it was a drag on their career.” Davis celebrated the mix of scientists, psychiatrists, underground healers, drug dealers, artists, poets, and mystics at those events. Some, he said, “were sublime and profound. Some were batshit crazy. You can’t be a psychedelic person without wrestling with batshit crazy.”

Greer sees that kind of community as central to establishing a broader discourse around psychedelics. “Listen, I’ve had experiences I can’t explain and I’ve come into sources of information that really defy a reasonable epistemology. The only way we’re gonna be able to develop those conversations is with other people who you don’t have to bring up to speed.”

Mangini provided her own story as an illustration of how creating space for those broad conversations can inspire pragmatic, socially minded choices. When seeking a profession that would allow her to apply her psychedelic knowledge in a practical way, the perinatal experience theories advanced by Stanislav Grof led her to midwifery as a profession that unifies the “mystical and transformative realm.”

The balance Mangini struck in her career anticipated emerging opportunities for interdisciplinary and nuanced interaction Greer is working to cultivate in his academic efforts. “When it comes to the psychedelic humanities, dinner is served. There’s a lot of work to do. What humanities really excel in is meaning and value, whereas the biosciences tend to have more empirical knowledge,” he said. “Now that I’m mixing with more people from the med school, I realize that they’re as keen and hungry and interested as I am and we complement each other in ways that I wasn’t anticipating,” said Greer.

Davis cautioned that unlike other fields of knowledge with well-established institutional norms and standards formed over generations of study, “with psychedelics, there’s no history. Every person who wants to riff, to be an expert, to fake it, to bullshit, there’s nobody who can call it.” Building community among serious people in a container oriented more towards knowledge sharing and fellowship than professional advancement, as the hosts are attempting with this event series, aims to create a check against what Davis calls, “the logic of the market, of professionalization, of the way institutions claim turf.”

The next installment of The Chalice will occur on December 6, and feature a new lecture by Erik Davis. In February, ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison will speak at the event.

Photo of Maria Mangini, Erik Davis and Christian Greer by John Mabey.

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