The War on Consciousness

I’ve just watched and been pretty much blown away by this TED talk given by a man called Graham Hancock. It was recommended to me by a man called Gary. Gary was one of my fellow meditators at the Vipassana retreat I attended recently. When we were allowed to talk on the 10th day, I fell into conversation with Gary about the ayahuasca retreat he’d been on in the Peruvian rainforests. I had forgotten the very little I already knew about ayahuasca and after listening to his fascinating experience, determined to have one of my own. He recommended I look up a guy called Graham Hancock. I just got round to it this morning.

The talk below is extraordinary. It includes lots and lots of things I didn’t know, all of which tend to support the things I did know or at least fervently believe. Here is an excerpt:

We hate visionary states in this society. In our society, if we want to insult somebody, we call them a dreamer. In ancient societies that was praise. And we have erected huge apparatuses of armed bureaucracies who will invade our privacy, who will break down our doors, who will arrest us, who will send us to prison, sometimes for years, for possessing even small quantities of psilocybin or substances like DMT, whether in its smokeable form or in the ayahuasca brew, and yet ironically DMT is – we now know – a natural brain hormone. We all have it in our bodies and it’s just that its function remains unknown for lack of research.

And it’s not as though our society is opposed in principle to altered states of consciousness. I mean billions are being made by the unholy alliance of psychiatrists and big pharma in over-prescribing drugs to control so-called syndromes like depression, or attention deficit disorder in teenagers. And we have a love affair in our society with alcohol. We glorify this most boring of drugs despite the terrible consequences that it often has. And of course we love our stimulants: our tea, our coffee, our energy drinks, our sugar, and huge industries are built around these substances, which are valued because of the way they alter consciousness.

But what all these approved altered states of consciousness have in common is that none of them contradict or conflict with the basic state of consciousness valued by our society, which I would call “the alert problem-solving state of consciousness”, which is good for the more mundane aspects of science. It’s good for the prosecution of warfare, it’s good for commerce, it’s good for politics, but I think everybody realises that the promise of a society over-monopolistically based upon of this state of consciousness has proved hollow. And that this model is no longer working. That it’s broken in every possible sense that a model can be broken. And urgently we need to find something to replace it.

The vast problems of global pollution that have resulted from the single-minded pursuit of profit, the horrors of a nuclear proliferation, the spectre of hunger that millions every night go to bed starving. And we can’t even solve this problem despite our alert problem-solving state of consciousness. And look what’s happening in the Amazon – the lungs of our planet, this precious home of biodiversity – the old growth rainforest being cut down and replaced with soya bean farms so we can feed cattle so that we can all eat hamburgers. Only a truly insane global state of consciousness could allow such an abomination to occur … We can spend countless billions on warfare, on hatred, on fear, on suspicion, on division, but we can’t get together the collective effort to save the lungs of our planet.

And this is perhaps why shamans from the Amazon are now mounting a kind of reverse missionary activity. When I’ve asked shamans about the sickness of the West, they say it’s quite simple: “You guys have severed your connection with spirit. Unless you reconnect with spirit and do so soon, you’re going to bring the whole house of cards down around your heads and ours.” And rightly or wrongly they believe that ayahuasca is the remedy for that sickness.

What’s even more interesting about all this is that this particular TED talk was subsequently removed from the TED website. There is an enormous debate detailed here, which I hope to make the time to read soon, but the upshot is that TED felt that Hancock’s talk ‘was not rooted in proper scientific study’ (Nate Mook, TED). Although the conversation on that page is closed, the debate continues to rage, with Hancock and his advocates expressing concern that the reason his talk is not featured on TED’s website is more to do with the fact that it challenges mainstream thinking.

Bearing all this in mind, the final paragraph of his talk is particularly ironic.

And I stand here invoking the hard won right of freedom of speech to call for and demand another right to be recognised, and that is the right of adult sovereignty over consciousness. There’s a war on consciousness in our society and if we, as adults, are not allowed to make sovereign decisions about what to experience with our own consciousness while doing no harm to others, including the decision to use responsibly ancient and sacred visionary plants, then we cannot claim to be free in any way. And it’s useless for our society to go around the world imposing our form of democracy on others while we nourish this rot at the heart of society and we do not allow individual freedom over consciousness. It may even be that we are denying ourselves the next vital step in our own evolution by allowing this state of affairs to continue, and who knows, perhaps our immortal destiny as well.

Anyway, here’s the talk.

Now I’ve got to get on and make some money. Airfare to Peru is fucking expensive.


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I am Karl Webster. I wrote these words. If you liked them, you’ll be overjoyed to know that there are plenty more where they came from. So you should definitely sign up to my newsletter if you haven’t already.

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