Psychedelics & ecological consciousness — Dr. James Cooke (2022)

Psychedelics have the ability to make us feel more connected to the natural world. This effect can be seen not just in the experiences of individual trippers but in the origins of the ecological movement in the 60s. Increased ecological consciousness following psychedelic use is even being found in scientific research today. What is it about these natural substances that allows them to have this effect? Why do psychedelic states lead us to feel an affinity with the natural world? And might a psychedelic awakening be the answer to climate change?

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What is Ecological Consciousness?

Most of us go about our lives without paying much attention to the natural world. We might spend our days in cities with little nature, our thoughts preoccupied with the realm of human affairs. At other times, we may find ourselves out in nature, connecting with the present moment. On such occasions, our minds can shift into a state of ecological consciousness. This is a way of seeing in which we see beauty and value throughout the natural world, not just in ourselves. We may feel a sense of respect and awe at an insect or a flower. We may feel the distance between ourselves and the rest of the natural world falling away. There can be a sense of kinship with the plants and animals you observe, of recognising yourself as part of nature. This sense of connection can grow to the point where you lose your sense of being something separate entirely and you perceive yourself to be part of the vast ecological network that is the natural world.

The 18th Century Romantics

Since it was proclaimed in the Hebrew bible that humans were to rule over nature, the Western world has not been particularly associated with ecological consciousness. This began to change with the romantic movement of the 18th century, and drug-induced altered states played their part even here. In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, published in 1821, the romantic writer Thomas De Quincey documented his use of laudanum, a combination of opium and alcohol. He was friends with the leading poets of this movement, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and they all removed themselves from the cities in order to live close to nature, a major theme in their writing.

The 60s: An Ecological Movement

Over a century later, drug use and associated ecological consciousness would erupt again in the West, this time in the USA. Before LSD and the hippie movement became widespread, there was a small cultural movement on the West coast that was reconsidering our relationship to the natural world. The poet Gary Snyder was a key figure in this movement. Having been a part of the Beat generation of the 50s and of the West coast poetry movement of the same time, known as the San Francisco Renaissance, he was interested in both Eastern religion and Native American culture. He, and others like him, lay the cultural foundations for the hippie movement which would explode in coming years, after LSD had escaped from the lab.

The effects of psychedelics on the feeling of being separate from nature

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What have psychedelics and eastern religion got to do with feeling connected to nature? When it comes to psychedelics, a key effect they typically produce is a reduction in egoic consciousness. Our ego or sense of self is the psychological construct that is responsible for keeping us feeling separate from the rest of the natural world. When the ego is dissolved, we’re left with a sense of there only being the vast ecology of nature, consisting of connections, not of separate individuals. Eastern religion, with its centuries of reflection on the phenomenon of ego-loss, has provided many with a deep philosophical framework within which to understand the significance of this experience. Indigenous traditions, which often incorporate their own practices involving psychedelic plants, also provide centuries old perspectives from which we can understand our connection with nature.

Scientific Results

With the psychedelic renaissance, scientific research is finally catching up with these ancient traditions. When researchers looked at whether people who use psychedelics more often show an increased sense of nature-relatedness, a sense of identification with the natural world, they found that they did [1]. They also found that those who use psychedelics more often were more likely to report engaging in pro-environmental behavior, suggesting a real world impact of this change in consciousness. In another study, researchers found that nature-relatedness increased after a psychedelic experience. What’s more, not only was this increased ecological consciousness still present two years after the experience, it had actually increased [2]. They found that the extent of ego-dissolution and the role of nature in the psychedelics experience itself were important factors in determining the increase in nature-relatedness that would occur after the experience. It seems that tripping in nature can start a process of increased ecological consciousness that can build over time, rather than simply fading away once the trip is over.

Plant Teachers and Indigenous Perspectives

According to Wiler Noriega Rodrigues, a Shipibo shaman who runs the Ayahuasca retreat center Ayahuasca Spirit, our relationship to nature is central to this indigenous tradition. “When you drink Ayahuasca you are connecting on a deeper level with nature. It’s that simple”. He also says that the ayahuasca vine, as well as other plants, are thought of as plant teachers. “Every single plant is a teacher” says Wiler, “That’s where the power and the medicine is, it is in every single plant. It is very important to connect to nature. When you are in the world of the medicine you see trees and plants and paths that constantly bring you into nature. Nature connects to us because we are nature, even though we forget at times.”

Interconnectedness with Nature

Do psychedelics introduce an illusion of being part of nature or do they help us to see the truth of our situation more clearly? A scientific understanding of what we are suggests the latter. To begin with, on a physical level, we’re made of exactly the same elements as the rest of the natural world. When we die this material continues to flow around the ecosystem, becoming parts of other organisms. This exchange is going on even as we live, breathing the oxygen created by plants and putting our own waste products into an ecosystem that will repurpose them for something else. On the biological level we are an evolved organism like all others, there is no biological dividing line between us and the rest of nature. We share a common ancestor with all living things, including plants. What’s more, we’re not really a single organism. We contain bacteria that we need to survive, and they are organisms from an entirely different kingdom to the rest of our cells. We’re woven together out of many aspects of the natural world, we can't help but be fully part of it.

Further evidence that ecological consciousness reflects relating more clearly than ego-consciousness comes from the scientific idea that the ego is not something solid and real but is instead a psychological construct. Combined with the evidence that psychedelics act to remove this construct, we’re left with a picture in which our usual story of separation from the natural world is the delusion, not the perspective of our being part of nature.

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The Possibility of Plant Consciousness

The experience of consciousness without a sense of self leaves many to reconsider whether other organisms, such as plants, might be conscious. Western science and philosophy has often presumed the natural world to be unconscious, unfeeling and inanimate, allowing us to treat it as we please. Other traditions, however, see consciousness as widespread in nature. Certain scientific theories of consciousness, such as the Living Mirror theory which holds that consciousness is a feature of the life process, are beginning to bear out this idea [4]. In the future, it may seem obvious that other living systems have an experience of themselves and of the world around them, even if this experience is significantly different from our own. This perspective would only add to our sense of kinship with the rest of the natural world, seeing it as far more like us than we had previously thought.

Deep Ecology, Climate Change and Ecological Catastrophe

As psychedelics become more and more mainstream, what impact would widespread eco-consciousness have on our society? One tradition that explores the relationship between ecological consciousness and society is deep ecology. In shallow ecology we might engage in pro-environmental behaviour but still see ourselves as apart from the natural world. In deep ecology we see ourselves as just one part of the community of nature, not separate from it or superior to it. As it stands, our lack of ecological consciousness is hurtling us towards ecological catastrophe. It may take a mass shift towards the deep ecological perspective for us to save the future of our species. Perhaps psychedelics, with their ability to increase ecological consciousness, might be the key to making this shift a reality. A wise re-engagement with psychedelics, on a global scale, might just have the potential to save the entire world.

References

[1]

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0269881117714049?casa_token=vZa0r-_nuaYAAAAA%3A1hulpKNEwWTHzyNxEEqKFU6URIMCmeoysowsmHe0fdIFzMFxCk5J00MZ2eYoL2T3pdGCl-sdwAZlGA

Forstmann, M., & Sagioglou, C. (2017). Lifetime experience with (classic) psychedelics predicts pro-environmental behavior through an increase in nature relatedness. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 31(8), 975-988.

(Video) The psychedelic renaissance & our relationship with nature with Michael Pollan | Living Mirrors #46

[2]

https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/16/24/5147

Kettner, H., Gandy, S., Haijen, E. C., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2019). From egoism to ecoism: Psychedelics increase nature relatedness in a state-mediated and context-dependent manner. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(24), 5147.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02791072.2017.1312643?casa_token=RHxI75wqqkwAAAAA%3A4KtMYyZ6bjA9_SWT7B9eA0br0JnF5f6v-ANa4Zo-USLfPJ4ZAr4_mccEFPCLruPgNnS6bF36X1hSIQ

Nour, M. M., Evans, L., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2017). Psychedelics, personality and political perspectives. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 49(3), 182-191.

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[4] https://www.drjamescooke.com/consciousness

Cooke, J. E. (2020). The Living Mirror Theory of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 27(9-10), 127-147.

Videos

1. Ecological consciousness after mystical experiences with Bill Richards | Living Mirrors #17 clip
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5. The potential for psychedelics to change how we relate to nature | Living Mirrors #46 clips
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