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Re-Branding social consciousness and psychedelic knowledge

How Russell Brand's political activism fuses spiritual consciousness with a resurgent psychedelic counterculture.

Giulio Sica
25 December 2013

For a man who has been free of his addiction to drugs for over 10 years, Russell Brand has done more in the past few months to articulate the political ideals that sprang from the psychedelic and alternative movements of the 60s and 80s than any activist has managed in decades. In his interviews on mainstream media, particularly in the UK with the BBC's top current affairs interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, as well as in numerous spots on chat shows across the United States, Brand has been highlighting with great eloquence and wit, the necessary political and spiritual revolution needed to help humanity out of its collective pathological and destructive path to oblivion.

Though his focus is on transcendental meditation and yoga, and a connection with what he has described as the iconography and symbolism of the Indian philosophy of Vedanta, which helped him overcome his own addictive tendencies, his casual mention in conversation of the ideas of US pioneer and inventor Buckminster Fuller, and his friendship with psychedelic researcher and creator of online psychedelic magazine Reality Sandwich, Daniel Pinchbeck, places him in the pantheon of such luminaries as Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna, as well as his comedic inspiration, Bill Hicks. This may however be a bold claim, considering how highly those figures are held within countercultural communities, and also considering that his drugs of choice were alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine, while the current psychedelic substances of choice, ayahuasca and pure DMT, were not drugs he would have been familiar with, and are ones which in his present abstinence, he is now unlikely ever to try.

But it makes sense that only a non-drug user would be acceptable to mainstream media, and sufficiently 'reliable' to highlight the concepts and ideas that can trace a direct lineage to 1960s counterculture, ideas that were formulated through insights gained by millions of people by mixing psychedelic use with eastern spirituality and growing ecological awareness. In incorporating the many themes of these visionaries into his political and spiritual outlook, Brand has found a connection between the experience users encounter in the psychedelic realm, of an interconnected state of being beyond ego, and an outlook infused with a fiery class-consciousness.

The recognition that we are more than our physical manifestation and human identity, gives rise to a resolve to overcome those destructive forces within us all, those forces that pull us into habitual patterns; immersion and attachment to sensory pleasures and an obsession with one's conscious identity above the recognition that we are interdependent. The experience allows the focus to shift outwards, to recognise that we exist in relation to others and that external change is also necessary. The spiritual or psychedelic seekers who keep their humility and good humour, even as they express their hedonistic and sensory-obsessed tendencies, display self-effacement, an important component in the quest of liberation from attachment to superficial identity.

There are pitfalls for the psychedelic or spiritual seeker, who can become so absorbed in the enjoyment of the subtler, blissful experiences of transcendence that they become detached from the human community and might as well remain in Plato's cave chasing shadows on the wall. Such self-absorption is ultimately damaging for the individual (far more so with psychedelic use than pure spiritual practice, it has to be said) but the cumulative impact of all this activity allows the ruling class to continue to dominate and oppress its populace. Inner experience is not enough on its own. Action is needed to connect the inner world with the outer reality. This is the union that is central to the philosophy of yoga and meditation, which is why it provides a perfect adjunct to initial psychedelic experiences.

But it is class-consciousness, together with spiritual practice, that is at the heart of Russell Brand's vision of a better world and that is related in no small part to his experience growing up in a working-class community in the humdrum town of Grays, Essex, on the outskirts of London in the 1980s. Drugs and fame were his way out but, as he has explained, this did not fill the spiritual need for connection that he yearned for. It is only through abstinence and sustained spiritual practice that he began to find that connection. In connecting on that level he recognised the importance of service to the community, which  in turn enabled him to speak his truth with integrity and fearlessness.

Too often, both spiritual practice and psychedelic journeying can settle in to a self-obsessed pursuit of an illusory goal of perfection. Equally, a political outlook shorn of any spiritual dimension can become harsh and cruel in its expression, turning off the very class of people, rather than being patronised, seek inspiration. It is the synergy of both the positive, spiritual qualities gained through meditative practice, with the recognition of responsibility to each other and the planet we depend on, that becomes a potent form of rebellion, challenging the hierarchical systems of oppression that are causing such misery around the world. A quote often attributed to the anarchist pioneer Emma Goldman says: "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution". Comedy too falls neatly within this outlook, which is why Russell Brand is capturing the public imagination with such success, using humour and art to outline his vision.

So, where are we in terms of psychedelics and spirituality changing our paradigms of thought and systems of control? In many ways, things are better than they have been for decades in terms of the public's view of psychotropic substances. Despite the continuing blight of prohibition, scientific research into the effects of various prohibited drugs are yielding positive results in the potential treatment of a variety of psychological and biological conditions.

Campaigners in the USA, whose government remains central to the imposition of drug prohibition around the world, have achieved a measure of success in relaxing laws regarding cannabis. In countries across South America, along with a political rebellion, which has been in resurgence since Hugo Chavez's late presidency, there is a growing official movement to legalise substances that continue to be classified as highly dangerous, challenging the western hegemony that wishes to impose prohibition by force. Just look at Uruguay.

When discussing how psychedelics came to be seen as worthy of scientific study, researchers such as those at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in the US cite a deliberate moving away from what were perceived by the scientific and political establishment as the more outlandish theories of 60s psychedelic icon, Timothy Leary. Instead they sought to create an objective framework more in line with the established scientific paradigm and, by association, with the accepted political hierarchies. But this connection between political hierarchy and scientific paradigms may be problematic for a number of reasons. Is conforming going to lead to the free world of exploration that many users and activists hope for? Or is there something in the nature of use of these substances that so challenges the present philosophical framework of political leadership, that complete liberalisation of all psychotropic substances signals, for those who benefit from the present system,  a threat to the very propaganda model that is necessary to keep the established western hegemony functioning?

Nevertheless, recent advancements in the scientific study of these substances have been impressive. In the US, with MAPS, the trials in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are yielding positive results and, along with studies on cannabis, and tryptamines such as LSD, psilocybin and DMT to treat a variety of ailments, is showing definitive and scientifically measurable signs that these substances have medical benefits, directly challenging their scheduling by government as harmful substances with no medicinal use.

In the UK prominent scientists such as Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College in London, working with fMRI brain scans show what happens to the brain when stimulated by psychedelic substances. The work of renowned psychiatrists David Nutt and Ben Sessa has also increased scientific knowledge of the biological and chemical functioning of these drugs. This facilitates their possible use as medicinal and psychological tools to alleviate suffering and points to possible groundbreaking research into the nature of consciousness. Further to this, the work of the Beckley Foundation in Oxford, England, has provided detailed methodological analyses, from cost benefits of cannabis legalisation to harm reduction solutions for addicts, and presented these findings to public bodies such as the United Nations.

Gatherings and conventions of academics and pioneers in the field of psychedelics and consciousness studies around the world, such as Breaking Convention in the UK, show a growing body of work and willingness to expand such areas of expertise. Yet Professor David Nutt was sacked from his role heading the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs by a supposedly left-leaning Labour government when he made the factual observation that alcohol was more harmful than MDMA. Clearly, science on its own is not enough to change policy. What is needed is popular support.

This is where a celebrity figure such as Brand willing to speak out is so important to public understanding and why his continuing abstinence is so important. Brand is not speaking directly about a psychedelic revolution, but his spiritual outlook chimes with that vision. His primary concern with regards to drugs is to popularise and get funding for abstinence-based recovery programmes for problem users. But, contrary to what has been said about him, he has not attacked drug use in and of itself. He agrees that for many people drug use is not problematic and that punitive measures against drug users do not work and exacerbate the negative aspects of use, both individually and societally.

The most defining characteristic of the psychedelic experience is that it allows social and psychological boundaries to dissolve, thus making manipulation and control difficult. Techniques of meditation, yoga, and studies in both western and eastern esoteric traditions, also allow individuals and collectives to transcend notions of hierarchy that are falsely imposed. It is perhaps precisely this capacity that has kept such substances and philosophies on the fringes. Politicians, and activists of all political hue would find it much harder to impose their questionable agendas, if a politically conscious population proved ungovernable in the traditional sense. 

But there are as many disagreements within the psychedelic community about what the experiences represent in political terms, as there are in other political groupings. Perhaps more so because we are dealing with a loose ideology and the nebulous concept of consciousness and the subject-object relationship that breaks down in both the psychedelic and spiritual states.

Hierarchical systems of power that have existed for thousands of years will not be easily dislodged, however. Psychedelics may help by jolting us out of our collective stupor, but class-consciousness remains the single most important factor in mass social awareness, giving rise to assumptions about society and hierarchy which ensure that those in power can keep social stratification intact. It makes no difference to this that certain rich and influential cliques are also able to experience ecstatic states, whether with psychedelics or with meditative techniques, and are happy to rest within those states while the rest of humanity suffers. This is an accusation that was levelled at what was once labelled the 'new age' movement.

But once political activism joins forces with the realisation brought on by both psychedelics as well as ideological critique, social stratification is challenged and this is what is happening now. Such groups, equipped with the basic psychedelic/spiritual tenets of love and unity, do not see the opponent as an enemy to be crushed, but instead see systems that can be improved upon through evolved ways of thinking that benefit all.

Russell Brand is acting as the poster boy for many countercultural pioneers who have gone before and who are working today, one of the most notable being the writer Charles Eisenstein, who, like Brand, echoes the best of the psychedelic counterculture, without himself being a user of psychedelics. While Eisenstein's writing is detailed and scholarly, Brand manages to synthesise those ideas into humorous and catchy soundbites, as befits his art, tailor-made for our low-attention-span, entertainment-obsessed culture.

Too many critics have focused on Brand as an individual, failing to see that he is opening up ideas to the mainstream that also chime with such activist groups as the Occupy movement which campaigns for social change on a massive scale.  They too challenge the very notion of our existing philosophical paradigm, which denies a spiritual aspect to our lives and which is thus life denying and ultimately destructive to life on Earth.

Where Brand has forged a path, others will follow, and will find it easier to bring insights from the psychedelic realms, with the humility gained from sustained spiritual practice and the embodiment of empathy for humanity and all planetary life gained from ecological awareness, as well as the knowledge that we have a responsibility to use our power for the benefit of all. It's been a long time coming, but it seems we could be on the threshhold of a major shift in collective consciousness.

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