Oliver Hockenhull on the psychedelic experience

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      As reported in the Movie Notes section of this week's Straight, Oliver Hockenhull's new documentary on the therapeutic value of psychedelic drugs—including LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and ayahuasca—exists in two very different cuts. During a visit to Hockenhull's home in Kits, the Straight spoke to him about both films at some length, but mostly focused on the "long version" of the film, From Neurons to Nirvana: The Great Medicines, set to screen at the Vancity Theatre April 29 and May 1. Hockenhull describes this as the more "philosophical" version of the film, for those with some experience of altered states of consciousness.

      The background visuals for both films are highly impressive, but it’s the long version that really stands out, with incredibly detailed mandalas, smoke, and other patterns shifting and swirling about the talking heads onscreen. Asked how long it took to complete them, Hockenhull laughed. “It took a long time,” he says. “It was days upon days of rendering. It was long and tedious, but also quite enjoyable, too."

      And the backgrounds aren’t merely eye candy, he adds.

      “Just as an example, you know the very intense imagery that happens over the Good Friday Experiment sequence?” Hockenhull is here referring to an episode that took place on April 20, 1962, where divinity students, including Martin Luther King’s mentor, Howard Thurman, and the future scholar of comparative religions, Huston Smith, ingested psilocybin, in a study done with the involvement of Timothy Leary. Only seen in the long cut, the film presents an image of a tape recorder playing Thurman’s awe-infused, psychedelicized account of his experience, with swirling mandalas surrounding it.

      “It was crucial to me to use that narration because it was such a beautiful lecture that he gives" he says. "And on the big screen it’s quite effective, and surprisingly enough, [the mandalas are] based on schematas of the brain. Basically, there are recent discoveries that suggest it’s a gridlike structure.” (In reference to this, Hockenhull mentions a study reported in Scientific American.)

      As impressive as the visuals in the film are, there’s also a striking degree of calm, coherent, cliché-free discussion of the psychedelic experience and its therapeutic applications, for instance from Dr. Stephen Ross, the principal investigator in the Psilocybin Cancer Project at New York University. Ross explains in the film that “I thought the people who would come to us would be biased, that they would be ‘groovy hippies’ or ex-hippies; they would be children of the 1960s; they’d have done a lot of hallucinogens in their youth. That was not the case. Of the seven people we’ve treated so far, six of them have been hallucinogen-naïve—[for instance] women in their 70s that had metastatic ovarian cancer—and just sort of brave individuals who had an enormous amount of distress associated with having cancer, who weren’t biased in any way by these drugs. They were just looking to get out of the suffering they were in, this kind of distress of having a terminal illness and dying.” 

      Ross’ admitted initial skepticism and his general tone of serious-mindedness makes it clear that he is anything but a doper trying to legitimatize a favourite pastime; in fact, he said he was quite reluctant, intially, to introduce his patients, already afflicted with considerable anxiety, to experiences that could be in themselves anxiety-producing. Hockenhull—who contacted Ross as part of his extensive research on the film —says that “the beautiful thing about Stephen, for me, anyways, is that he shows that he’s really concerned about his patients, and he didn’t want to take any chances, so he studied it really well before this investigation, before his tests. And I think that showed how willing he is to do whatever is necessary to provide comfort and ease when people are dying, or soon to die.”

      This is where the concept of the bardo becomes relevant. “It comes from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Leary used it as well,” Hockenhull explains, for example, in the book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a 1960s classic co-authored with Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (now known as Ram Dass). 

      “When you ingest these chemicals, these rare neurotransmitters, you have the opportunity to experience that moment, if you will, that makes a difference. That used to be the term that Gregory Bateson used. ‘What is needed is a difference that really actually makes a difference.’ The bardo state is this transitionary moment where you can take responsibility for your actions and basically live with it, live with those choices. When you ingest something like ayahuasca—the other term for that is 'the vine of the soul' or 'the vine of the dead,' and it’s really interesting to me, how, in the Shamanistic roots of the substance, in Peru or the Amazon, they use it to tune into the world of the dead, if you will. And the Tibetan tradition, they get into this idea as well.” You create, perhaps, a brain chemistry that approximates a death or near death experience, and “you become cognizant of all of your flaws, all of your glories, and the glory of the world itself.”

      Terminal patients who have used psychedelics in controlled, therapeutic settings such as Ross' have almost always reported experiences that helped with anxieties around death and helped them come to terms with their lives. “You get into this mind-state where time is extremely relative, and layers of the grand collective unconscious become not only visible, but transparent to you,” Hockenhull continues. “That’s similar to what the Tibetans call a bardo state, as well. After that experience, no matter what level you go at it, your eyes will be renewed to the beauty of the world, and to the beauty of others, and yourself.”

      Hockenhull is happy to see that projects such as The Psilocybin Cancer Project are growing in number, after decades where psychedelic research has been suppressed. “There’s not piles of people” doing this work, “but it’s definitely expanding. And some of the leaders, like David Nutt and the people from Johns Hopkins [University], these people have really high credentials.” Hockenhull blushes slightly. “I didn’t mean to throw a pun there, a really bad pun. But anyways, they do have really good credentials, and they do have a lot of compassion.”

      Does Hockenhull consider it brave that the people in his film have come forth to publicize their work, in some cases publicly 'fessing up to their own use of psychedelics? “Oh, absolutely," he says. "At the same time, these things are too important to remain a taboo, and to remain outside intellectual discourse. They’re way too important—socially, culturally, politically, philosophically; in every which way. So the more that we can bring it out, that’s cool with me.”

      Throughout the conversation with the Straight, Hockenhull has been wearing a yellow t-shirt with the words “Sputnik 1957” on it. Eventually conversation turns to it. “I’m of the last of the baby boomers, I was born in 1957. I was born the same day the first creature escaped Earth’s atmosphere, Laika. Laika was a dog that the Russians sent into outer space, on one of the Sputnik. November 3rd.” And he was born on that day? “Yeah,” the filmmaker says, laughing. “I’ve made some films about that, because it’s really important. My parents were going to call me Sputnik Number One. They didn’t, unfortunately. That would have been a great punk name.”

      Oliver Hockenhull will be in attendance at the 4/20 panel discussion accompanying the shorter version of the film at the Vancity Theatre. Those impressed by it are advised to see the very different long cut as well. 



      Medicalization? Pfft

      Apr 18, 2014 at 7:12pm

      People who want visual distortion will find it. People who want clarity of perception, well, who wants that? People want pleasant distortion because clear perception of our current reality is monstrous. It's five minutes to midnight, has been for years, people. But let's use psychedelics so that people with cancer can be doped up into thinking there's a world worth living in---the right "set and setting" and you can convince anyone of most anything, that's what the CIA found: the only invariant effect of psychedelics is that they increase suggestibility. Most everything else is accounted for on that ground.

      “you become cognizant of all of your flaws, all of your glories, and the glory of the world itself.”

      Sorry, kiddo, not everyone has a new-age Bullshit Trip. Garbage in, garbage out. All of that flotsam and jetsam rolling around in the boomers---gadzooks!

      In one of his later books, Leary said that by the mid 1980s, even the psychedelics would be sanitized and would have lost their counter-cultural appeal. Medicalization always involves sanitization. Antiseptic, wholly mainstream, no potential to build a world where it isn't five minutes to midnight. But who cares about that, let's all riff on the "glory of the world"! Gotta love those petrochemicals in the air! Gotta love that plastic! Gotta love mass media! What a glorious place this is! Must be pretty fucking doped up to think that.


      Apr 19, 2014 at 4:22pm


      A. MacInnis

      Apr 21, 2014 at 7:56am

      Pfft seems to be suggesting that we not take advantage of the legitimate uses of psychedelics - say, in helping terminal patients come to terms with their condition - because - what? The world is a shitty place? (Surely it can't just be that Pfft has a habit of looking at life through the wrong hole...?). The problem is, Pfft's arguments can be extended to apply to anything and everything else that might make life seem less horrible, including coffee, music, sex, etc. Perhaps we should go around glowering all the time? How about a round of self-flagellation?

      The fact is, Pfft, therapeutic uses for psychedelics (as well as more malign ones) were being explored long before their mass-culture popularization in the 1960's - which could be seen as a rather strange distraction, a blind alley (no one is arguing for turning on and tuning out in the above piece, note). If you include their use in shamanistic contexts, they're quite ancient, and have been healthily incorporated in many cultures a little less loopy than our own for a very long time. Not exploring their legitimate uses because - what, the world is a shitty place? - seems to waste a tremendous amount of potential...

      @A. MacInnis

      Apr 21, 2014 at 12:44pm

      "Perhaps we should go around glowering all the time?"

      Perhaps we should understand that being happy doesn't mean being stupid.

      I have no problem with medical availability of LSD: put it in the pharmacy sold in 25ug doses, so that people can take 300ug once a week/month/year if they like, or, more appropriately, 25-75ug daily. Anyone who wants some crank PhD/MBA/XYZ to guide him through the trip, fine. Anyone who doesn't, fine. In my experience, the thought of this sort of availability terrifies those who want to constitute a New Priesthood of Psychedelic Witch-Doctors.

      The arguments should be rooted in reason, not qualities. LSD is far safer than alcohol, in terms of risk to user or community. There is simply no rational reason to argue for this medical witch-doctory, except as an adjunct to irrational, egotistical politics.

      A good test is whether or not you think you are fit to decide of anyone should or should not take LSD. Do you think children should be able to take LSD? How about people diagnosed with so-called "mental illness"? Do you have faith in natural processes, or do you have faith in your own contorted judgment? The evidence of the uselessness of our judgment is all around us. But who wants that? As I said, "people want pleasant distortion because clear perception of our current reality is monstrous."

      "their mass-culture popularization in the 1960's - which could be seen as a rather strange distraction"

      It could be, if you didn't think world peace was attainable or desirable. My research shows that the international convention on psychotropics was passed in _direct response_ to 'corrosion of western values,' that is, the higher consciousness of peace as desirable, war as undesirable. Various parties were conspiring to declare world peace. We've had a world war, why not a world peace? No other movement has ever come close.

      The danger posed by free availability of psychedelics is economic: our economy runs on war, against nature, against people, against pretty much everything. The more one gains from the current economic setup, the more likely one is to rationalize its continuation, in spite of its monstrosity. The well-heeled will be able to dope themselves in a medical context, so problem solved, amirite? The problem isn't war, it's lack of dope!

      A. MacInnis

      Apr 21, 2014 at 3:46pm

      Pfft, sorry, but I think I have to now admit that I have no idea what you're saying. I can't sort out what's ironic from what's serious in what you've just written, or, having read both your comments, what your actual position on psychedelics is. Point of the story/ film is that they're being used in therapeutic contexts again, after years of being more-or-less suppressed and taboo. I think that's a good thing, as, apparently, does Oliver Hockenhull... think I gotta leave it at that.

      Martin Dunphy

      Apr 21, 2014 at 4:16pm

      He might have been chewing his jimson weed cud (don't try that at home, kids!) while writing, Al.

      @Martin Dunphy

      Apr 21, 2014 at 6:00pm

      I can't believe I ate the whole thing...

      @A. MacInnis

      Apr 24, 2014 at 8:03pm

      Yeah, it's not that I think these uses are misuses---it's just that medicalization won't bring back the acid tests.

      I feel royally ripped off that we don't get to have acid tests anymore. And it's not an acid test unless it is publicly advertised, with doses available to all comers.

      The Acid Tests had a defining, positive effect on north american culture. I find all of this medicalization, this doctor-as-dispenser stuff to be fundamentally contrary to the ethos of north america. In north america, you buy the ticket, you take the ride. You don't need to ask some white man, or man in a white coat, for permission.

      IMO people who can countenance medicalization don't really "get it." Elitist? Perhaps. But at least my sort of elitism leaves the compounds available to everyone. As far as I can read the MAPS/academic research scene, they consider Leary, Kesey, etc. to have screwed up everything, rather than having been the ones who prevented the psychedelics from having been co-opted by the horrible collectivist structure under which we live.

      In North America, the only drug control should be whether or not you can afford the drugs. The people who impose controls other than that are basically war criminals. Collaborating with them in order to get doses to people with cancer---I am just not sure such collaboration is moral or ultimately useful toward the goal of resumption of the acid tests, which is the goal of every right-thinking human being who has turned on. Once you are enlightened, you want to enlighten others, or at least give them the choice.