Psychonaut

timothy leary

Psychonautics [sahy-kuh-naw-tiks] (Greek: psyche ‘soul/spirit/mind’ and naut ‘sailor/navigator’) refers both to a methodology for describing and explaining the subjective effects of altered states of consciousness, including those induced by mind altering substances, and to a research framework for voluntarily immersing oneself into an altered state by means of such techniques, to explore human experience and existence.

The term has been applied diversely, to cover all activities by which altered states are induced and utilized for spiritual purposes or the exploration of the human condition, including shamanism, lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, sensory deprivation, and archaic/modern drug users who use entheogenic substances in order to gain deeper insights and spiritual experiences.

The term psychonautics derives from the prior term psychonaut, usually attributed to German author Ernst Jünger who used the term in describing chemist Arthur Heffter. In Jünger’s 1970 essay on his own extensive drug experiences, ‘Approaches: drugs and inebriation,’ he draws parallels between drug experience and physical exploration, referring to the dangers of it as ‘reefs’ for example.

Occultist Peter J. Carroll made ‘Psychonaut’ the title of a 1982 book on the experimental use of meditation, ritual and drugs in the experimental exploration of consciousness and of psychic phenomena, or ‘haos magic.’ The term’s first published use in a scholarly context is attributed to ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott, in 2001.

Clinical psychiatrist, Jan Dirk Blom, describes psychonautics as denoting ‘the exploration of the psyche by means of techniques such as meditation, prayer, lucid dreaming, brainwave entrainment, sensory deprivation, and the use of hallucinogenics or entheogens,’ and a psychonaut as one who ‘seeks to investigate their mind using intentionally induced altered states of consciousness’ for spiritual, scientific, or research purposes.

Psychologist Dr. Elliot Cohen of the UK Institute of Psychonautics and Somanautics defines psychonautics as ‘the means to study and explore consciousness (including the unconscious) and altered states of consciousness; it rests on the realization that to study consciousness is to transform it.’ He associates it with a long tradition of historical cultures worldwide. Author Robert Thurman includes the Tibetan Buddhist master, stating that ‘Tibetan lamas could be called psychonauts, since they journey across the frontiers of death into the in-between realm.’

The aims and methods of psychonautics, when state-altering substances are involved, is commonly distinguished from recreational drug use by research sources. Psychonautics as a means of exploration need not involve drugs, and may take place in a religious context with an established history. Cohen considers psychonautics closer in association to wisdom traditions (the core or mystic aspects of a religious or spiritual tradition, without the trappings, doctrinal literalism, sectarianism, and power structures that are associated with institutionalised religion), transpersonal psychology (the study of self-transcendent or spiritual aspects of the human experience), and and integral movements (a transdisciplinary school that touches on philosophy, psychology, and spirituality).

However there is considerable overlap with modern drug use and due to its close association with psychedelics and other drugs it is also studied in the context of drug abuse from a perspective of addiction, the drug abuse market, and studies into existing and emerging drugs within toxicology.

There are several methodologies for engaging in pyschonautics: hallucinogens, deprivation, ritual, dreaming, hypnosis, biofeedback, meditation, and prayer.

Hallucinogens include, DMT, LSD, psychedelic mushrooms, mescaline, Ayahuasca, and very rarely, datura or Salvia divinorum. In traditional cultures entheogenic substances were obtained from plants such as the San Pedro cactus and Cannabis Sativa, seeds such as Ipomoea tricolor (‘Morning Glory’), and sometimes from animals such as the bufo alvarius toad. Deliriants such as datura of the nightshade family have at times been used, although these can result in loss of control, lucidity, and may result in delirium.

Deprivation involves the disruption of psychological and physiological processes required for usual mental states, e.g. sleep deprivation, fasting, sensory deprivation, oxygen deprivation/smoke inhalation. Ritual is used both as a means of inducing an altered state, and also for practical purposes of grounding and of obtaining suitable focus and intention. When dreaming, in particular lucid dreaming, the psychonaut retains a degree of volition and awareness, and keeps a dream journal, both in order to better remember dreams and to further understanding of their own symbolic internal dialogue.

Biofeedback and other devices change neural activity in the brain (brainwave entrainment) by means of light, sound, or electrical impulses, including mind machines, dreamachines, binaural beats, and cranial electrotherapy stimulation

These may be used in combination; for example traditions such as shamanism may combine ritual, fasting, and hallucinogenic substances.

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