Venerable, groundbreaking and radical, KPFA was the coolest station to ever elevate the airwaves. Unfortunately, its owner Pacifica Radio corporation went from a progressive collective of media activists to a union-busting bunch of assholes who seem intent on destroying what made the station so extraordinary: its independent spirit. If you’re interested in the ongoing struggle between KPFA’s workers and their corporate bosses, check this out.
Okay, back to the psychedelic part of this post.
On the occasion of posting this interview with Castaneda, I’m taking the opportunity to share with you this excerpt from my memoir describing the first of many of my experiences with peyote (I was 18 at the time):
One afternoon this guy with a wild blonde afro came into the Arbor Café, a natural food restaurant where I worked in 1969. He was from Arizona and wanted to trade a bag of fresh peyote buttons for food. We made the trade. I gave him all he could eat and he gave me three dozen big fat juicy buttons. I called my dear friend John The Poet and told him about my score. That night we had our first peyote experience. An experience that taught me more about the Universe, God and my place in the grand scheme of things than all the books I’d ever read or have read since.
John came up to my apartment. In one room, which was to become John’s, I had laid the peyote buttons on a little altar I’d constructed out of a milk crate covered with Indian fabric, candles and a beautiful statue of the Buddha. We each ate 12 buttons while drinking black cherry juice to try to mask the extreme bitterness of the cactus. 12 buttons is a large quantity of mescaline for even an experienced peyote eater. We had made a serious commitment to Mescalito.
John stayed in the altar room. I went into my room and sat on the bed, which was the sole piece of furniture in my spartan digs. When the peyote came on, it came on strong. The window in my room looked out over the Bay and I could see the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond glowing in a haze of jaundiced luminosity as it spewed spires of rank sulphuric smoke. It was a futuristic vision of hell - an Etch-A-Sketch of a Boschian nightmare. I was consumed with a sense of dread and doom. But soon that dark vision was swept away by a surge of powerful euphoric energy, the beginnings of the awakening of my kundalini and the activation of my chakras.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like some new age mumbo jumbo. But, keep in mind, this was 1969 and I was 18 years old. All the new age crapola hadn’t been written yet. There were a handful of books by scholars of Eastern mysticism on the subject of kundalini and you had to make an effort to seek out this information. I’d read a few books on kundalini, also known as serpent power - a dormant energy coiled at the base of the spine that just waits to be awakened - and I knew about seven points of energy along the spine that corresponded to bundles of nerve endings called the chakras. I’d read about this stuff, but I wasn’t sure I believed it. Well, peyote made a true believer out of me. That bitter green flesh introduced me to serpent power in precise and intricate detail. Unlike the epic acid trip I’d stumbled into back in D.C., my peyote experience was as physical as it was mental, every cell of my body was engaged in a cosmic dance.
I was in the grip of Mescalito’s magic…my body suddenly became white electricity and was humming with energy, and my spine was tingling with waves of pure ecstasy. Beautiful and perfectly detailed geometric mandalas were spinning in the space between my closed eyes. My chakras were spiraling, pulsing, sparkling and luminescent like pinwheels of light in a Fourth of July fireworks display. And when all the chakras were vibrating at the exact same frequency, none prevailing over the other, I disappeared into an infinite white light and no longer existed. Ego death.
While I was going through this extraordinary transformation, John was having a similar experience in the altar room. From to time, we’d call out to each other across what seemed to be infinite space “you still there, you still there?” Our voices faded like the industrial smoke outside my window until they were no more. Our tongues had disappeared along with the rest of us…whater “us” is.
The lesson I learned was this: when we emphasize one aspect of our being while ignoring the rest, we create ego. If our sexual energy is dominant, we create ego. If our intellect is dominant, we create ego. If our emotions are dominant , we create ego. Only when sex, heart and mind are in complete balance and harmony do we experience so called enlightenment. When all of our chakras, our energy centers, are vibrating on the same wavelength, at the same pitch, we become in tune with the cosmos.
We are refined and subtle beings not just meat and bone. Embodiment is the result of getting stuck in just one corner of our totality. The Catholic concept of original sin, the idea of humans as fallen angels, is simply the result of being out of balance. When our mind is in tune with our heart and our sexuality is in touch with both, we become one with the natural order of things and no longer exist apart from the world. That’s how it works. If you don’t believe me, eat 12 fat peyote buttons and get back to me.
The morning after Mescalito’s visit, John and I re-entered the world tenderly, with the vulnerability and openness of newborn children. We looked at each with amazement and humility. We were no longer quite as solid as we were before our peyote trip. We had been introduced to something that was so enormous in its scope and yet so pure and simple that we were both blissed out as well as bewildered.
The deal with psychedelics is that you get the Cliff Notes version of cosmic consciousness. Don’t me get me wrong, the experience is real, genuine, but it’s also just a kind of crash course giving us a quick glimpse of who we really are. Most of us, actually all of us, can’t afford to leave our jobs, family etc. to sit on a mountaintop and contemplate the nature of existence. There have been a handful of human beings who could make that commitment: Milarepa, Buddha, Jesus and a few divinely intoxicated bums who used to practice their Dharma on Bowery and Broadway back in the 70s. But, in this day and age, when there are so many forces conspiring against our attaining even the slightest insight to who we are and what has authentic value in our lives, we need guidance that can lead us to a deeper and more profound understanding of why we are here and where we are going. I suggest taking the crash course. If you can get your hungry hands on some peyote, psilocybin mushrooms or clean LSD (it exists) go for it. Don’t wait for the world to become your paradise. Throw away the travel brochure. Create your own cosmic getaway. If your head’s in the right space, Newark is just as beautiful as the beaches of Belize. But ultimately it’s up to you to follow up on the psychedelic experience and do the hard work of self-realization on a daily basis. While psychedelics do open the doors of perception, it is our mission to walk through those doors and keep walking. There are no quick fixes for what ails us. Peyote showed me the way, a cosmic road map, but I still had to do the driving.
My next peyote trip was in 1972 with the Yaqui Indians on their reservation in Tuscon during Deer Dance. This is a story I’ll share at another time.
Fractals by Arnie Greif.