#772: Psychedelic Renaissance: Experiential Journalist Rak Razam on Shamanic Culture

rax-razamI recently attended Consciousness Hacking’s Awakened Futures Summit that explored the cross-section of psychedelics, technology, and meditation. I ended up conducting 10 interviews totaling over 6 hours of conversations with neuroscientists, technologists, musicians, meditation practitioners, and pioneering explorers from the psychedelic underground. I’m starting my coverage from the Awakened Futures Summit with experiential journalist Rak Razam who has been covering the psychedelic renaissance & shamanic revival in a series of books and movies since 2006. We talk about the intersection between psychedelics, technology, and contemplative practices, as well as his practice of “experiential journalism” that he coined in 2006.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So I recently had a chance to attend the Awaken Futures Summit on May 18th and 19th in San Francisco, and it was looking at this cross-section between psychedelic culture, immersive technologies, and meditation. So these are three separate disparate groups that I've been a part of to different degrees over my last 15 or 20 years. So it was kind of surreal to be at this event that was bringing all these different intersections together and seeing all the different parallels between them. Back in 2009, 2012, I was running the Evolver Spore here in Portland, and that was this salon that was inspired by the work of Daniel Pinchback and Breaking Open the Head, and was really bringing together the psychedelic culture within Portland here, and we'd have these different meetings and talk about different aspects of consciousness and whatnot. I've been going to different meditation retreats and Buddhist practices for 20 years now. And also, immersive technologies is something that I've been involved with technology with all my life, but especially covering the VR industry for the last five years. So there's all these interesting parallels between the immersive technologies, psychedelic culture, and meditation. And this gathering was really from the center of gravity was psychedelic culture in San Francisco. matched up with the startup culture, as well as the people that after they do a lot of psychedelics, they're getting into more contemplative spiritual practice, more of a quantified self consciousness hacking type of perspective. So I ended up doing about six hours of interviews there at the Awakened Futures Summit, and this is the first interview that I did. It was with Rak Razam. He's an experiential journalist who's been covering both psychedelic culture and shamanic culture and has written a couple of books on ayahuasca as well as a documentary. And I think he sets a nice context to be able to frame the connections between psychedelics and technology and these different contemplative spiritual practices. So, that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So, this interview with Rak happened on Saturday, May 18th, 2019 at the Awaken Future Summit in San Francisco, California. So, with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:23.382] Rak Razam: My name is Rack Razam and I'm originally from Australia. I thought I coined the term experiential journalist back in 2006 when I was exploring the worlds of psychedelics and spirituality and technology. It was based on Gonzo journalism and Hunter S. Thompson, this idea that These realms that I was going into and exploring and writing about couldn't be done objectively. You had to really get into the experience of the things, especially with the psychedelics, right? It's like there's no point really describing from the outside something which the wrapper isn't the creamy center, right? And so gonzo journalism had a little bit of an edge and a charge to it. So as I sort of was trying to brand myself a bit for integration into the mainstream, which back in 2006, psychedelics were still a lot more out there than they are now, have been more integrated into mainstream culture. So I coined the term experiential journalist and was writing about things like the ayahuasca movement, DMT, 5MEO DMT, Delo reporting on that, going to different countercultural sort of events and festivals and really sort of reporting from the inside out on what these experiences were about.

[00:03:32.747] Kent Bye: Yeah, so I've been covering the VR industry and so there's been a very phenomenological turn towards direct embodied experience that is happening from the technology side. And you mentioned that you also kind of covering a technology element. When did the technology start to come into play going into these kind of shamanistic experiential psychedelic experiences? How does the technology start to blend in there?

[00:03:53.458] Rak Razam: So, number one, here's the thing. We have these blinkers on in Western culture. It's like this white, Western-centric, imperialist viewpoint that we don't even see, right, generally, even though a lot of movements are helping us deconstruct some of that ideology that we're burdened with. Because, number one, when it comes to approaching Indigenous cultures and cultures which have caretaken psychoactive medicines for millennia, they see them as vegetal technologies. And we sort of just laugh, right? Isn't that quaint, right? Those Indigenous people think of these as a technology. But think about it. The Earth secretes these substances and beings and species, including humans, with consciousness. It's almost as if All of the species are a technology of the planet, right, to extend and have some interoperability with her own workings. Indigenous cultures in Peru, they call the planet Pachamama. You know, in the West we have different terms like whole systems theory, or James Lovelock coined this term the Gaia hypothesis in the 70s, to describe the Earth as a living organism, as a self-contained matrix within which life flourishes. Within that, life itself is mediating its own consciousness and its own expression, and it's using these technologies that are invisiblized. We don't see them as technologies because they're not necessarily the Western idea of what a technology is. But the originating technology is consciousness, and that is mediated through other filters, whether that's plant medicines, earth medicines, psychoactives, breath work, you know, trance dance, a lot of shamanic cultures have realized that the technology of consciousness itself can be mediated through these other modalities and expressions. So, for instance, the great and sacred medicine of ayahuasca all through South America, the curanderos, or the healers, or what we call the shamans, they call this the science of curanderismo, and it is replicable, it is measurable, it is explorable, and they use these vegetal technologies to open up their consciousness and to explore the realms in the spectrum of consciousness that they are portals to. That is a technology. I have covered other Western sort of technologies, whether it's been things like blockchain or AR, VR, things like that, as they've been coming in as well. A really interesting little segue to this is some of my research into psychedelic culture in the history and this idea that LSD, for instance, which was probably the main driver of the psychedelic revolution back in the 60s and onwards, and You know, it's centered basically in Palo Alto, what's become Silicon Valley. And up until the mid to late 60s, LSD was both legal and before it became stigmatized, it was used by the intelligentsia, by the mainstream, by the corporate America of the 50s as a creativity tool. Dr. Jim Fadiman, who has been sort of the pioneer of the microdosing movement in the last few years, he did one of the last legal studies on LSD and the results came out around 1970 on creativity, thinking outside the box, and the usage in corporate America of the psychoactive substance. There seems to be a parallel in the ability of psychoactives like LSD that have been used in corporate America, in Silicon Valley, in that hotbed of creativity that helped birth the computer movement, all the sort of modern technological paradigm we have now, which I believe is basically has been about shifting from a linear consciousness, a hierarchical linear consciousness, which is what the 20th century essentially inherited, to this distributed nonlinear consciousness, which we really have now, or really coming into the full bloom of now. and that in a very dynamic way parallels a lot of these shamanic earth medicines and their ability to shift our consciousness as well.

[00:07:38.050] Kent Bye: Yeah, I've been looking a lot at philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead and process philosophy, but also moving away from the monochronic culture, which is the very linear mindset, hierarchical, top-down, but looking at these polychronic cultures, so more cyclical and nonlinear. But from a perspective as an individual, you have your own sort of unfolding of your own evolution of you, but then you're covering either what is happening in the experience, but also the larger world context. And so, how have you separated what is happening in the world and what is happening in your own personal evolution versus any sort of given experience that you're going through?

[00:08:12.278] Rak Razam: Well, I don't know. I don't think you can separate these things, can you really? Because, I mean, your own personal journey, like my journey into experiential journalism and these worlds of shamanism, technology, spirituality, I was already called to these experiences in these realms and it quickly became apparent that I was going down to cover them as a journalist, and I was representing for mainstream fringe, but mainstream media. But really, I was on my own spiritual path, and I was having these catalyzing experiences, which part of my path, you know, there's this whole idea of the heroic journey that Joseph Campbell's promulgated, these sort of stages, where step one is essentially departure from the known world and your comfort zone. Step two is that initiation into the unknown or the mystery and whatever that is for you. And stage three is the return and bringing that changed you and that information back to your tribe, so it comes full circle and it's made a difference. So I quickly found that discovering ayahuasca and going into the shamanic paradigm down in Peru in 2006, it was almost a cover story during the media. But then it took me what was originally a 3,000 word article on ayahuasca and the role of the shaman in the 21st century. eventually became two books and one documentary film on Ayahuasca, Aya Awakenings, which basically consumed seven years of my life. But that was actually my integration and in putting into words and transmitting a map of that experiential space that I had experienced, which was for the culture. It was my heroic journey, but it was also my contribution back to the community, you know, for the map that I'd created on my solo journey. But, you know, we forget there's this shifting of perspective that The collective solo journeys make up the cultural journey, and everyone contributes to the cultural journey. And at this time that we're in of great transformation and upheaval, we need these brave explorers, as Terence McKenna used to say. We need people to go into these realms, whatever these new realms are, emerging technologies or ancient vegetal technologies, and bring back something of value to help contribute to this transformation of society and to this survival, if you will, of civilizational... us. Yeah.

[00:10:16.117] Kent Bye: So because you've been tracking this since 2006, there's been quite a lot of changes that have happened since then. And I'm just curious to hear from your perspective what you see these turning points have been, whether it's some of these studies from maps or like what it has been in the culture from transformational culture, Burning Man, like what are these turning points where you see that it's really taken off and the conversation has changed where there's a lot more open public dialogue about psychedelics?

[00:10:40.539] Rak Razam: Well, in general, yeah, I've been a commentator on psychedelic and shamanic culture for over 10 years now. In 2006, National Geographic Adventure published an article on ayahuasca focusing on Hamilton Souther, who was running the Blue Morpho Lodge. That was a turning point in terms of the mainstream appreciation of ayahuasca. Essentially, recently we've had the 2018 publication of Michael Pollan's book, How to Change Your Mind. That's been a huge turning point. Back in 2006, actually, my first gig as an experiential journalist was going to Basel in Switzerland and to cover Albert Hoffman's 100th birthday party symposium. He was the chemist who discovered or created LSD in the lab in 1938 and 1943. and he was turning 100, and that was basically when the idea of a psychedelic renaissance was born. It was born as an idea that he hoped that his problem child, LSD, could be repatriated or reclaimed back into the medical fold. And, you know, MAPS was there, the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, which has been the vanguard movement for legitimizing psychedelic research. And so, from 2006 onwards, the idea was basically born when the psychedelic community came together to celebrate Albert Hoffman. to bring these, I mean all the studies had been going on for you know years before that as well but there was a lot of momentum and that was a bit of a turning point and media really fell over commenting and documenting this hundred-year-old man's you know who invented LSD was such a pivotal memetic trigger in the media but in the decade or so since then there's been such a avalanche of positive press on psychedelics coming back into the medical fold and their usage to help alleviate stress, tension, PTSD, trauma, things like that in a therapeutic model. But definitely last year with the Michael Pollan book being published, they call it the Pollan effect, you know, it's had a pollinating effect. But basically psychedelics have gone mainstream now, they really have. You know, MAPS hopes that by 2021 that these substances will be available for use in therapeutic set in settings to help alleviate PTSD with MDMA. Ketamine has come in again. Psilocybin's been decriminalized in Denver and Colorado and is coming in. Ayahuasca is legal in many parts of the world. There's a cultural acceptance which has been slowly incrementally sort of aggregating and it's definitely become a flood now. So we're in novel territory.

[00:13:02.508] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of immersive experiences are and what they might be able to enable?

[00:13:11.573] Rak Razam: Well, it depends what you mean by immersive experiences. You know, life is an immersive experience and this is just one reality channel filter. So, essentially what psychedelics and shamanic medicines have taught me is that there is a greater capacity everywhere you look, whether that's within or without, right? And so, we're talking a bit about technology and LSD and Silicon Valley. Not to say that LSD caused everything, but LSD was actually one molecule different than LSA, the morning glory seeds. Nature itself teaches us about networks. It teaches us about energy distribution, about filtering channels of reality. Scientific studies have now shown that, you know, psychoactives in general are actually switching off these regional clusters of the brain called the default mode network. When we lower that egoic mind and that aggregate channel that we've been embedded in, we can open up to these different channels of reality that are always there, that shamanic cultures engage with when they take these psychoactive substances. So it's really a matter of shifting your reality grid or shifting your channel of reality. So the modern technologies like AR, VR and things like that that are coming in, it's almost as if we've gotten to this point as a species of really being able to harness and appreciate the natural systems like biomimicry to use these natural ways and you know, we're just copying really what nature is really doing. So, I've been involved in a few discussions and podcasts lately on this simulation theory that we're basically in a simulation. So, all these ancient cultures say the same thing, whether it's Samsara, Maya, whatever names they gave it. It's not that this is just an illusion. It's just that what we're in isn't all that we're in, but we're filtering down our systems of processing what we're in to, you know, Aldous Huxley called it the mind at large, to make sense of it, to navigate this reality grid. But there's so much more. So, whether we're using, you know, modern technologies which are based on biomimicry, natural systems, we're creating or discovering our true potential within those technologies and those mediums of reality. And so the shamanic experience with different plant medicines and mediated reality can be really instructive of how to navigate and also take the lessons from that into these new technologies that we're creating as well. But it's sort of like Russian dolls within Russian dolls all embedded within one another. We're in the great mystery and it's up to us not just to randomly have experiences in these spaces, whether they're man-made or nature-made, it's to explore, and I believe it's to explore our full potential, to know who and what we really are, and then the game gets very interesting.

[00:15:44.933] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the consciousness-hacking community?

[00:15:49.275] Rak Razam: Love is all there is. Play the game well. Aloha.

[00:15:53.697] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much. All right. You can check me out at racrezam.com. So that was Rak Razam. He's an experiential journalist who's been covering psychedelic and shamanic culture. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, just to frame plant medicines and psychedelics as a form of technology, they are consciousness modulating technologies that help you access different aspects of your personality and allow you to modulate your consciousness in a very similar way to virtual reality experiences. And that thing that I've noticed within covering the VR industry over the last five years is that there is this psychedelic underground with different creators who have had a variety of different psychedelic experiences that either directly inspire some of their work or they've gone and done different ayahuasca journeys and get involved more and more into these different shamanic practices. And so at the Awakened Futures Summit, there was this blending of different people like Adam Ghazali from UCSF who's looking at using virtual reality technologies as a form of experiential medicine. And in some ways, these psychedelics are another form of experiential medicine. And what the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies are doing is that they're essentially legitimizing the efficacy of these different psychedelic drugs for things like PTSD and trauma and dealing with end-of-life anxiety and depression. I mean, the therapeutic applications for psychedelics go on and on and on, and that's a lot of what MAPS has been doing. So this gathering was a very interesting combination of people that are on the psychedelic underground that were essentially strategizing and working towards a future where a lot of the stuff that people are talking about and exploring just become more and more a part of the mainstream. And Rak traces through a little bit of what's been happening in terms of these different turning points, whether it's the National Geographic or going to Albert Hoffman's 100 year birthday celebration of LSD. And, you know, the big thing was this publication of Michael Holland's book, How to Change Your Mind, which came out in 2018. And I think started to open up the doors in terms of what's happening with the neuroscience and all the different therapeutic applications of psychedelic medicine. I think it just got people really curious. And, you know, just within the last couple of months, there's been both Denver as well as Oakland that have decriminalized psychedelics that are growing from the ground, whether it's psilocybin or mushrooms or ayahuasca. And so one of the things I'm taking away from this gathering is that there is this psychedelic renaissance that we're in the very beginnings of. I'll have some more interviews to cover in specifically what maps is doing but they're essentially creating a FDA approved psychedelic and then they're on the road to be able to distribute and administer these different drugs in a therapeutic context and so they're helping to redefine all the different contexts and rituals that are involved with that in order to administer these different psychedelics and the role where technology is going to come into play is it's going to help either prepare people for psychedelic experiences or to help do some level of screening to see if people would be responsive to a psychedelic treatment. Or it could also help to do levels of integration of going and having a psychedelic experience and then using virtual reality to be able to help make sense or integrate a lot of the experiences that people may have had within their psychedelic journeys. So there's a number of different themes and topics that came up in this conversation that I think if you've been listening to this podcast for long enough you'll probably hear some similarities. The psychedelic culture and the indigenous perspectives take a very panpsychic perspective in terms of having consciousness be distributed and nonlinear and just thinking about it not in a hierarchical linear way but thinking about it in these more nonlinear polychronic ways. And I think that people get involved enough into these shamanic and psychedelic cultures, then those types of themes and topics seem to be a pretty big part of that culture. But philosophically, I think it's very similar to either neoplatonism or panpsychism or a little bit more of an enchanted worldview where there's consciousness that's embedded into the world and not something that's just an epiphenomenon of the brain. So the last point that I just make here is this that the other common theme between all these different topics of psychedelics and immersive technologies and meditation is looking at it through the lens of neuroscience, because in some ways, having the most cutting edge neuroscience research right now is looking at things like meditation and virtuality experience, as well as psychedelic experiences. And that was a big focus of Michael Pollan's book, of looking at how, you know, when you take psychedelic drugs, it's turning off your default mode network, it's allowing you to have this ego disillusionment experience, where it's less about you as an individual, but seeing how you are connected to the larger whole. And that's that ego disillusionment process that is, I guess, opening up you to all these other different, what Rak says, reality channels. And that there's all sorts of different modalities that could get you into these different types of altered states of consciousness to where you start to turn off that default mode network, whether it's plant medicines, or meditation, or earth medicines, or psychoactives, breath work, and trance dance. All of these are entraining your brain in different ways to be able to help access these different altered states of consciousness that are using these various different technologies, whether it's meditation as a technology, or psychedelics, or through these virtual and immersive technologies. And the thing that comes up over and over again at these different gatherings is looking at the hero's journey from Campbell and the way that Rak describes it is that there's these three stages, you go through this departure of the known world, you have to go through some sort of obstacles or challenges where you have this initiation into some of the unknown mysteries, and then you return back and you bring back the information and you share it with the tribe. And I think it's that sharing of your story and trying to bring back the insights that you're getting from these different psychedelic journeys that ends up being this medicine either for yourself or for the entire community. And I think that's what rack is trying to say is that right now we really need these brave explorers that are going into these altered states of consciousness and getting in touch with these different ways of knowing so that you can tap into insights that we need as the collective in order to deal with all the things that we're going through right now in the world today. And just a shout out to the simulation theory where he is also drawing these parallels between like the samsara or Maya or mind at large. So these perspectives from Aldous Huxley or Hinduism or Buddhism, you know, there's different ways of talking about the ultimate nature of reality and the illusionary nature of reality. And whether you call it samsara or Maya or mind at large or a simulation theory, it's all kind of talking about the same thing, which is that. there's these deeper patterns and structures to the nature of reality that we may not be able to fully perceive, and that the world that we're seeing is in some ways, perhaps this holographic projection or this platonic cave where we're just looking at the shadows, but we're not able to ascertain the true nature of these aspects of reality. And there's something about the psychedelic experience that either is just this complete internal experience and perceptual trick of allowing us to explore new neural pathways in a way that is totally mundane explanation from a neuroscience perspective, or it's actually opening up our consciousness up where it's like helping to tune down the parts that's really focused on our ego and that default network. And it's allowing us to tune into these more subtle energies to the nature of reality. So that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast, and if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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