Purple Magazine
— The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021

mexico’s psychedelic renaissance



mexico’s psychedelic renaissance

No country has a richer psychedelic legacy than Mexico. It’s in Mexico that the modern world discovered psilocybin, the magic mushroom traditionally used in ceremonies by the Maya and the Mazatecs. Here we also found peyote, the sacred cactus of the Huichol people and the Tarahumara; Salvia divinorum, a square-stemmed plant from the mint family that only survives as a cultigen; and bufotenine, a form of DMT secreted from the glands of a toad in the Sonoran Desert. Mexico also bequeathed to us the mysterious legacy of Carlos Castaneda, the anthropologist, sorcerer, and trickster whose enormously successful books on his apprenticeship to the Yaqui “man of knowledge” Don Juan made indigenous shamanism and entheogenic exploration wildly popular across the world. 

In 2002, I published my first book, Breaking Open the Head, on psychedelic shamanism. This was years before the current psychedelic renaissance, which my book — one of the first to take entheogenic investigation seriously since the 1970s — helped to catalyze. At the time, I was working as a magazine writer and editor in New York City. Back then, the media culture of New York was hyper-materialistic and brutally cynical. In my circles, confessing to an interest in psychedelic mind states or other dimensions of psychic reality would get you instantly ridiculed and dismissed. In fact, the subject was so taboo and repressed that I feared getting stopped at airports after the book came out.

So much has changed since then. Right now, speculative capitalism is greedily sucking the psychedelic revolution into its insatiable maw. New companies focused on legalizing psychedelic therapies have amassed billion-dollar market caps, even though psychedelics are still illegal almost everywhere. Some of these companies are funded by Silicon Valley billionaires like Peter Thiel (Donald Trump’s former advisor). They follow the aggressive tactics of the pharmaceutical industry, trying to copyright psychedelic molecules and treatment modalities as quickly as possible. We may end up with an Amazon or Uber of psychedelics in a few years, defining “set and setting” for the masses.

Psychedelics have also entered the mainstream in Mexico. I moved here a year ago, seeking a sane haven during lockdown. I have been living in Tulum, the epicenter of a neo-shamanic culture that verges on the pretentious and absurd. At the most lavish beach hotels, the dress code involves being swathed in rough organic fibers meant to vaguely suggest the aesthetic of nomadic tribes. Psychedelics are a favorite theme here and constitute a growth industry. I am not sure if they are actually legal or just fall into a gray area (Mexico has a lot of gray areas). On the road, signs openly advertise ayahuasca and Bufo, as well as Tepezcohuite, a local Maya plant containing DMT.

On any given night, there may be multiple ceremonies happening at local cenotes or jungle casitas featuring ayahuasca, San Pedro, mushrooms, DMT, or other visionary plants, sometimes mingled with breath work and sound-meditation sessions involving crystal bowls and gongs. Ketamine, MDMA, and LSD remain drugs of choice for the all-night jungle parties that proliferate in high season. Unfortunately, cocaine is also popular. This has brought cartels to the area, along with their unpleasant habit of killing each other in gangland-style massacres.

For whatever reason, I haven’t participated in too many shamanic escapades here. I seem to have reached a point in my life where I am working to integrate the last 20 years of psychedelic journeys rather than pursuing new breakthroughs. A popular Mexican term is han cuidado — take care. In the past, I often didn’t take enough care when it came to psychedelics. I now find myself far more patient, humble, and reticent.

In the past, I had a number of shamanic adventures in this amazing country. I first smoked N,N-DMT at an enthobotany conference, founded by Terence McKenna and his acolytes, that took place in Palenque, near one of the most spectacular Maya ruins. That was my initial immersion into hyperspace — I wrote about it in Breaking Open the Head. My visionary experience bore little resemblance to the ornate carvings on the ancient temples. It felt like entering a futuristic reality, where technology and nature had synthesized.

In Breaking Open the Head, I described it as “science fiction made fact. A dimension devoid of natural things, of plants and human need, of our weak and imprecise symbol systems. DMT land was an interweave of tantric mandalas, virtual reality fantasias, stained-glass aureolae;
a 10-dimensional Walt Disney World projected into some far-fetched and far-flung future. There was, in that place, rushing toward me, an overwhelming force of knowledge and sentience. I knew it was impossible that my mind, on any level, had created what I was seeing. This was no mental projection. This was not a structure within the brain that the drug had somehow tapped into. It was a nonhuman reality existing at a deeper level than the physical world.” I stand by that description today and have checked in from time to time to reconfirm it.

Years later, I smoked Bufo — 5-meO-DMT — on an architect’s rooftop in the Condeso district of Mexico City. We worked with a controversial, somewhat macho neo-shaman who had developed a unique practice with this medicine. Although Bufo makes you entirely lose consciousness, he had people smoke a huge amount of it standing up. As they fell down, he caught them and brought them to the ground. While I had smoked the toad a number of times before, the neo-shaman made sure to give me a massive dose. For 30 minutes or so, I lost ego-identity and became interwoven into a white crystalline lattice-like geometry, resembling the ceiling pattern of Islamic mosques. This seemed to extend in all dimensions infinitely. It was both ecstatic and terrifying — a direct experience of what Buddhists call Nirvana or the Void, where there is only bliss but no separate “you” to experience it.

Bufo has become an increasingly popular hallucinogen. This, in itself, is an extraordinary development. Tulum features a Bufo barbershop, where one can get a trip along with a haircut. 5-meO-DMT is one of the most powerful, overwhelming experiences any human being can have. In fact, it is kind of a final trip — the direct experience of ego death and dissolution into the void. Yet it is now available as just one more option in the spiritual supermarket. For Breaking Open the Head, I also visited Huautla de Jiménez, the mountain town where the investment banker Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina had their legendary first encounter with the shamaness María Sabina. Wasson wrote about this experience for Life magazine, introducing psilocybin to the modern world. He experienced a full-blown religious conversion: “I felt that I was now seeing plain, whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view; I was seeing the archetypes, the Platonic ideas, that underlie the imperfect images of everyday life. The thought crossed my mind: could the divine mushrooms be the secret that lay behind the ancient Mysteries? Could the miraculous mobility that I was now enjoying be the explanation for the flying witches that played so important a part in the folklore and fairy tales of Northern Europe?”

María Sabina, on the other hand, later wrote in her autobiography (she became the patron saint of magic mushrooms in the 1960s, her wizened visage featured on innumerable dorm room posters and t-shirts) that when the Anglo-Europeans took the mushrooms, they permanently diluted their magic: “From the moment the foreigners came to find God, the sacred children lost their purity. They lost their force, one has spoiled them. From now on, they will no longer have an effect. There is nothing one can do about it.”

I returned to the ruins of Palenque with my friend Stuart many years after my DMT trip there. We bought bags of mushrooms from the local Maya teenagers and ate them on the pyramids. During that trip, the archaeological site suddenly came alive with a numinous, occult intensity. The patterns of the carvings seemed to be portals into other dimensions, and the somewhat amoral and Lovecraftian deities apparently worshipped by the classic Maya seemed extremely proximate, close at hand. My sense about that civilization and other ancient Mesoamerican cultures — like the one that built Teotihuacán, the massive pyramid complex outside of Mexico City, over 2,000 years ago — is that we can hardly understand them from within our current worldview, language, and consciousness.

Places like Palenque were built, I believe, to be used as shamanic technology, for occult summoning and inter-dimensional crossing. Tripping on mushrooms within the pyramids gives one just the slightest intimation of an entirely different way of knowing and being that was practiced there. It is trippy enough to realize that, when they played the ball game at Chichén Itzá, the captain of the winning team was the one who was sacrificed, his heart cut out of his body, and this was considered the greatest honor. His body would be taken to the coast and released on a boat with great ceremony, as he would be welcomed by the gods when he reached the Inframundo, the Other World.

My second book was 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, where I explored the prophecies of the Maya, Aztecs, Hopi, and Hindu civilizations and even those from the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West, putting them in a coherent philosophical context. All of these ancient prophecies pointed to this time as one of epochal transformation — and, indeed, it is. Humanity is undertaking a vast uncontrolled experiment, radically remaking the Earth’s atmosphere and geophysical environment according to our short-term desires. As our technology advances exponentially, we are learning that the discoveries of quantum physics mesh perfectly with ancient systems of esoteric and metaphysical knowledge, which knew consciousness as the indivisible source and the physical universe as its projection.

I never predicted anything grotesque or magnificent would happen exactly at or around 2012 — but it remains clear to me that we are in a prophetic time-window of planetary transformation. Some Mesoamerican lineage holders have come forward recently to say that 2012-2021 constituted the transition between two epochs. According to the Aztec or Nahuatl shaman Sergio Magaña, in books such as The Dawn of the Sixth Sun, we have now left behind the Fifth Sun and entered the Sixth Sun, a new 6,000-year cycle.

While the Fifth Sun was a “Sun of Light,” the Sixth Sun, Magana informs us, is a “Sun of Darkness.” This may sound ominous, but it isn’t in itself bad. During a Sun of Light, the predominant focus of humanity is on waking or daylight consciousness, as reflected in rationality, empiricism, and the development of materialist technologies — traditionally masculine aspects of consciousness. As we undergo a polarity shift into the Sun of Darkness, the predominant focus or energy of humanity shifts to exploring the Psyche, the unconscious, the Inframundo or Other World, and the dream world — the feminine and intuitive aspects of consciousness. Reality itself becomes, in slow degrees, increasingly like a waking or lucid dream.

While there is no scientific way to demonstrate the validity of this, I find it very compelling as a way of thinking about how our reality is changing. With fake news, deepfakes, and Internet censorship, we seem to be losing the capacity to determine what is authentic. As the vaccines reprogram humanity’s immune system and genetically engineered species such as mosquitoes are released in the wild, we are being lured into a mass transhumanist experiment, undermining the biological integrity of the Earth. The more powerful our technologies become, the deeper, also, becomes our shadow.

I have been a sincere advocate of psychedelic exploration as a necessary tool for breaking free of the prison of scientific materialism and capitalist realism since Breaking Open the Head. Yet now I feel concerned that the explosion in psychedelic use, much of it unconnected to traditional practices, may be having negative consequences. Unwittingly, are we further eroding the boundary between the physical and psychic planes before we are ready?

In Mexico, in any case, the boundary between the physical and psychic, the world of the dead and the world of the living, has always been more ambiguous, flimsier, than we find in the Anglo-European world. As Octavio Paz wrote in The Labyrinth of Solitude: “Man is alone everywhere. But the solitude of the Mexican, under the great stone night of the high plateau that is still inhabited by insatiable gods, is very different from that of the North American, who wanders in an abstract world of machines, fellow citizens, and moral precepts. In the Valley of Mexico, man feels himself suspended between heaven and earth, and he oscillates between contrary powers and forces, and petrified eyes, and devouring mouths.” This country — where myriad indigenous cultures and visionary plant traditions still preserve so many secrets — seems a good place to watch and wait for whatever is coming next.



[Table of contents]

The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021

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