The difference between the recreational and ceremonial use of psychedelics is not just about set and setting. It’s primarily about intensity. If you take magic mushrooms and go for a walk with friends, you will probably have quite a magical time. There will be wonder, surprise, surreal encounters, expansive feelings, profound conversations, fun and giggles.
These are valuable experiences in their own right, creative, exploratory and bonding, shared psychedelic adventures that make for good memories and great stories. They can go horribly wrong of course. Too high a dosage and not enough attention to set and setting can turn a multicoloured dreamscape into a multicoloured nightmare. Bad trips can sometimes spin out into full-blown psychosis and people can find themselves in dangerous and even life-threatening situations.
The clinical setting is much safer, though not as fun. Fun is not the point, of course, except indirectly. The point is treatment for conditions such as depression or anxiety which take the fun out life. The therapeutic psychedelic journey is taken solo with minimal guidance and support from a psychiatrist or trained sitter. There may be some interaction, but the talking is mainly done afterwards. Depending on several factors, primarily the dosage, a clinical psychedelic experience will vary in intensity, although, in the interests of safety, this will be kept within certain bounds.
The clinical setting has obvious parallels with the ceremonial setting, but there are also striking differences, the most basic being the level of intensity. Where the clinician is careful not to let the experience get too intense and keeps things relatively cool, the shaman turns up the heat. Where the clinician is worried that you may get too high, the shaman is worried that you may not get high enough.
Ceremonies are meant to be intense. A sesshin is intense. A sweat lodge is intense. Even a regular church service should be intense. Otherwise it’s just empty ritual or social convention. When it comes to psychedelics, this distinction is intuitively obvious. If a psychedelic ceremony isn’t intense, it should really be classed as recreational rather than ceremonial. The same applies to more conventional religious ceremonies like baptisms, weddings and funerals. They can also feel merely “recreational”.
It’s all about the experience. Intuitively, we know that there is something valuable about intense experiences. And it’s not just about the thrill factor, which might explain the allure of sky-diving and other extreme sports. So what is it? Specifically, what’s the spiritual value of intense experiences?
If you think about it, experience is always relational. Whether you are talking to someone or hugging someone, or talking to a tree or hugging a tree (even talking to yourself or hugging yourself) you are in a dynamic, dialogical relationship with someone or something else (even if that something else is a part of you). The more intense the relation, the closer and more entangled you become. Think of an intense conversation, for example. If you’re on the same wavelength, if you’re “vibing”, there comes a point where the boundary between you begins to dissolve, just as with intense dancing or intense love-making.
Relational intensity is therefore associated with intimacy. And intimacy, in its most intense manifestations, resolves itself into unity (or “nonduality”) where self and other, inside and outside, experiencer and experienced become one (or “not-two”). This is the essence of spiritual breakthrough: the leap from duality to nonduality. It requires a leap of faith, but it also requires a certain amount of intensity.
Shamanism is intense because shamanism is about spiritual breakthrough. It’s not a walk in the park.