Open Sandman: Salvia Divinorum, Lord of Dreams (Part I)

Jun 14, 2008 by

Salvia Divinorum, Lord of Dreams

Black sand beach in California's Lost Coast

IN HIS EPONYMOUS collection of writings, the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu claims to have once dreamt of being a butterfly, entirely unaware while flitting about of being anything else.  Upon waking, he wrote, he was not sure if he was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly or if he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. This butterfly dream, as it came to be known, would be later invoked repeatedly and its skepticism elaborated upon, most famously by Descartes, to question the legitimacy of sensory experience and the indisputability of an objective universe.  


Although we have launched ourselves into outer space, mapped out distant galaxies, and cloned new life forms, the dreamscape of our own inner space remains uncharted and inimitable, yielding the same ontological mysteries and dilemmas that Chuang Tzu experienced almost two-and-a-half millennia ago.  Perhaps the most definitive discovery in oneirology that we have made since then is that dream states and rapid eye movements are related, not exactly the profoundest of insights into the biology and function of dreams considering our advances in other fields of inquiry.

Our frontier spirit and technological advances may have forever condemned the earth’s terrestrial wildernesses to the same fate of the dodo and the quagga, but our dreams, with their ever-shifting terrain of flora and fauna, are impervious to codification and conquest.  Our dreamscapes may well be the remaining unmapped wilderness.  Like any classical wilderness, the dream world has no shortage of wild creatures.  The Metallica song Enter Sandman—with its video rendition of a child dreaming of drowning, being chased, and falling, while an old man, presumably the Sandman, looks on—memorably evokes this nightmarish dimension of the beasts one can encounter while in the Sandman’s grip: Hush little baby, don’t say a word / And never mind that noise you heard / It’s just the beast under your bed / In your closet, in your head.

Humans have always sought out mood- or consciousness-altering substances as a way to temporarily escape the monotony of existence or to heighten or destabilize their perception of it.  In our time tobacco and alcohol are the drugs of choice.  It is a well-observed irony that while these substances—one a relatively unstimulating stimulant, the other a depressant that begets belligerence more often than sedateness—are the all-time record holders in claiming human life, their widespread use and marketing makes them seem respectable (they are not ‘drugs’ after all, they are merely booze and cigs, essentials for a good time).  At the same time, less harmful, awareness-heightening substances like psilocybin mushrooms are outlawed, their mere mention invoking terrifying images of barefoot flower children swaying in solitary trance-like dances.

Psychotropics bear the greatest stigma of the many varieties of drugs, not necessarily because they are considered mortally dangerous like heroine and crack, or because they render the taker dangerous to others, but rather because they ‘mess with your head.’  No doubt, they do make you see the world through a different consciousness, often anew with a fresh perception that has been momentarily freed from conceptual frameworks; some psychotropics, and this is partly what can be so disturbing, deliver you into a different world altogether, much as in dream states.    

That said, despite the disreputable associations that the word ‘hallucinogen’ has come to carry, a number of ‘respectable’ writers and researchers have ingested psychoactives for explorative purposes and recounted their effects.  We associate mescaline with Aldous Huxley, peyote with Carlos Castaneda, LSD with Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, the psilocybin and fly agaric mushrooms with Gordon Wasson.  While most of these substances (at least the naturally-occurring ones) have been essential as entheogens to vision quests, healing rituals and religious rites in tribal societies for centuries, they first entered the mainstream of what we call ‘Western culture’ with the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s.  

One psychotropic plant, however, would remain obscure until the turn of the century.  It is a green leafy herb whose relatives can be found on most kitchen spice racks, belonging as it does to the sage genus and the labiate, or mint, family. It is also thought to be one of the most powerful natural hallucinogens known to man.  If a sufficient dosage is efficiently ingested, the plant sends one into what I think can best be described as a brief but intense waking dream state.    

Endemic to the Oaxaca region of Mexico, Salvia divinorum, or ‘sage of the seers,’ has been and continues to be used by indigenous Mazatec Indians for, as its etymology suggests, shamanic divination to aid healing sessions.  According to Mazatec belief, the spirit of the plant can reveal to the shaman the source of the sufferer’s illness.  Although the ethnobotanist Gordon Wasson published an article on salvia in 1962 for the Harvard Botanical Museum, it remained virtually unknown until the 1990s.  Not until the turn of the century did salvia become a recognizable name among the pantheon of consciousness-altering drugs, the sort one can find in any Amsterdam ‘smart shop.’  

Salvia remains legal in most countries, including the U.S., although a number of states have recently outlawed the plant or its derivatives.  There has been increasing negative media attention on salvia in recent years due to the surfacing of numerous YouTube videos depicting teenagers smoking concentrated leaf and then rolling about on the floor in giggling, gibbering fits (the Wikipedia entry on ‘salvia’ claims that the videos are ‘purporting to depict its use’ but there is no doubt the videos are authentic depictions; it’s what one would expect from kids insensately treating salvia like a party drug).  

Sensationalistic and misleading titles like ‘Deadly Dangers of a Street Legal High’ headline media reports by incompetent journalists who have clearly neither tried the substance for themselves nor researched the plant thoroughly.  Media coverage of salvia often cites the 2006 suicide of Brett Chidester, a 17-year-old from Delaware who was known to have experimented with salvia.  His parents and most journalists blamed the plant, assuming it had caused his depression, and a Senate bill passed soon after his suicide, implementing what came to be known as Brett’s law, which classified Salvia divinorum as a Schedule 1 drug in Delaware.

What is rarely if ever mentioned in the media is that some research has found potential medical uses for salvia as an anti-depressive. The director of the National Institute on Mental Health’s Psychoactive Drug Screening Program, Bryan Roth, believes that drugs derived from salvia’s active ingredient, salvinorin A, could be useful for a variety of diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to schizophrenia to even AIDS or HIV. Few would disagree that every effort should be made to keep salvia out of teenage hands and that the sight of teenagers blasted out of their gourds after smoking concentrated salvia extracts is an ugly one, just as it is ugly to watch teenagers sniffing glue or chugging Robitussin, but inventing scare stories or outright banning a plant with medical potential seems an inept way to go about it.   

Last month I flew from London to San Francisco for a friend’s wedding in the California town of Redding.  A close circle of my friends also flew in from various parts of the U.S. The mass convergence was a rare opportunity for an extended gathering so we all prolonged our trip to combine the wedding with some camping and hiking in the Sinkyone Wilderness (in the 21st century the name ‘wilderness’ has been reduced to meaning ‘where cars can’t go’), a hard-to-rea
ch coastal stretch of land in northern California characterized by lush redwood groves, Jurassic-like ferns, clifftop wildflower meadows, black sand beaches, herds of Roosevelt elk, banana slugs and the occasional recluse black bear or mountain lion.  Route 1 hugs most of the California coastline, but along this rugged strip it veers inland and then reconnects with the shore seventy miles or so later, explaining why the area is known as the Lost Coast.  

Salvia is legal in California and one of us, M, had purchased for the Lost Coast excursion two vials of 10x concentrated salvia extract in a smoke shop in Chico.  It was not my first encounter with the plant.  Some two years earlier I had read about it online. Both intrigued by and skeptical of the salvia researcher Daniel Siebert’s descriptions of the plant’s effects, which he claimed could include out-of-body experiences, ‘shamanistic journeying to other lands’ and ‘bizarre fusions with other objects real or imagined,’ I had purchased a 7x extract in Amsterdam in October 2006 while on route to the U.S., this time to Gloucester, Massachusetts, for another reunion with the same friends.  Nothing I came across suggested that salvia was toxic.  Nor was it considered dangerous so long as a sober person was on hand (a ‘sitter’) to watch over the salvia-taker: somnambulistic behavior, including thrashing and uncoordinated attempts at locomotion, sometimes occurred.  As it was not illegal either in the Netherlands or in Massachusetts, I was not risking arrest by packing it into my check-in luggage.  

While fresh salvia leaves can be rolled into cigar-like ‘quids’ and chewed, much like coca leaf, the powder or crushed leaf form of salvia is meant to be smoked from a pipe, ideally a water-pipe. A butane torch lighter is also recommended because the plant has a high vaporization temperature.  As we had no pipe, let alone a water pipe, I instead rolled up a kind of salvia cigarette, pouring the salvia powder into the body of the cigarette while filling the base, where the cigarette filter normally goes, with rolling tobacco.    

We went outside and sat in the grass under some boulders overlooking the Atlantic. We did not have a torch lighter, but the leaf powder still ignited and stayed lit.  Four of us smoked the salvia cigarette while the rest watched. I did recall for a moment feeling a slight shifting of spatial relations, as if the earth were subtly retracting from me or I from it, and the orange moss on a nearby stone took on a particularly curious glow.  But this was barely noticeable and short-lived. It was disappointing considering the remarkable accounts of salvia experiences I had read about.  It would not be until the Lost Coast that I would encounter the plant again.    

The seven of us—S, Z, J, C, K, M, and I—arrived at the Lost Coast trailhead on Sunday night.  Since J and K had to leave on Wednesday morning, we decided to leave our tents pitched as a base camp and just stage day hikes.  In the morning we went on a 15-mile hike along the coastal trail, traversing at least three peaks in the process.  We were too tired, either during the hike or after returning, to consider the salvia.  But on Tuesday we lazed around our base camp—which bordered an expansive black sand beach—with the tacit understanding that the day had been left wide open not only for hamstring recovery but also for a salvia session.  It was tacit because we were all wary of the plant, none of us enthused to dive into it.  M and S had smoked it one other time since the Gloucester flop and, for both, it had been far from uneventful.  

-You want to respect that plant, S had told me, because it will smack you down and laugh in your puny face.  

I initially put little stock in his warning. I’ve always been intrigued by the effects of psychoactive substances upon human consciousness as they seem to serve as vehicles that can awaken us to the awesome and portentous presence of the world, briefly granting us a direct and unmediated experience of reality.  Skeptics might consider that to be an illusory world, a perceptual manipulation resulting from alterations in the brain’s chemical balances; but even if one accepts this hardline stance on psychoactives, anyone who has temporarily accessed such worlds knows that, delusive or not, they possess a splendor that seems to share territory with the most intense degrees of aesthetic and religious experience.  I have never, however, shared the belief prevalent among some indigenous tribes for whom these substances are sacred that the ‘spirit’ of the plant or fungus is talking to me, unless ‘spirit’ is meant in its loosest sense.  It may be true that the closest I have ever come to a state of religious awe at the magnificence of the universe has been after chewing down a few mushrooms, the sort that one can find sprouting out of cow patties.  But leaving aside the fact that a powerful ‘mushroom spirit’ would probably choose a different place of residence than a fibrous pie of cow shit, I have never seen any good reason to ascribe a higher consciousness to a plant just because of its revelatory influence.  

Once in Palenque, Mexico—it was over a decade ago—I had purchased a bag of fresh mushrooms for 15 pesos from a Mexican farmer (I was walking down the road towards my hammock hut when a forearm and hand holding a bulging plastic bag emerged cartoonishly from the brush at my side while a voice whispered ‘hongos, hongos’).  A half hour later I ate them and then headed off towards the jungle.  On the way, a shirtless beaded American man with a great white beard who had spoken to me the previous day motioned me over.  He was sitting with a number of Mexicans who were also ingesting mushrooms, except they were first blessing them individually over a fire, reciting prayers before consumption. I felt like something of an intruder considering I did not share their reverential spirit. The older man, meanwhile, seemed perfectly at home amidst this ritualistic blessing.  He told me they were all going to soon head off into the jungle and that I could join them.  The mushrooms I had ingested must have been taking effect, because his feet, which were caked with dried mud, looked like they had never seen shoes, as if they belonged to some ancient being.  

He pointed to a bottle of water I was carrying and asked me for a drink.  

-I wouldn’t drink it, I told him, I’m getting over a cold.  It was true.      

-That’s all right, he replied. I’m sick too. Together we will share the sickness.

I wasn’t interested in testing his pseudo-shamanistic notions on overcoming illness through group transmission, so I handed him the water bottle and told him to keep it.  Politely declining his invitation to join the jungle expedition, I then slipped away alone for the jungle path, more interested in a solitary stroll than a group hajj.  It was not just because they were strangers that I wanted to go it alone; I also sensed that the group outing might be slightly too devout for my liking, resembling a mini-pilgrimage rather than a jungle wander.  I was not opposed to this sacred approach; it was infinitely better than the casual party stance of college kids who think the ultimate mushroom experience is a laughing fit in front of a screen saver.  Nevertheless, in my sensitized state, an overly reverential attitude would have made me just as uncomfortable as a crassly nonchalant one.  It is one thing to approach these substances with respect, care, and even awe, free of that grotesque adolescent buffoonery one sees in the salvia YouTube videos; it is quite another to deify them.  

Yet if there is any one substance that has made me question my profane attitude towards psychotropics, it is Salvia divinorum.  To
return to the Lost Coast, it was Tuesday late afternoon and none of us had yet mentioned the salvia.  But it was there, a presence looming over us.  We were just waiting for the right time.  I was lying in a hammock, relaxed.  The others were sitting around the campfire.  The sunlight had begun to mellow into warmer hues.

-I think I’m ready to give the salvia a go, I announced.  I’ll just do it right here in the hammock.

Within minutes M had brought over to me all the necessary accoutrements.  He packed a bowl of the fortified leaf into the water pipe and handed me the butane torch lighter.  

-Hold it in your lungs for a long time, he advised.

I placed a notebook and pen beside me in the hammock, unaware of how pointless it was to arm myself with these instruments of rational thought.  I then took a deep breath and as M held the fire over the leaf, I inhaled slowly.  The amount was too big for one hit so I held in what I could, exhaled some smoke, and then finished off the bowl.  I handed him back the pipe, held the smoke in my lungs for another fifteen seconds or so and then exhaled, while lying back into the hammock.  I had a serene view of birches rising above me, their papery trunks swaying mildly in the breeze.  A canopy of verdure rustled over each trunk.  

A few seconds after I had reclined back into the hammock the tree trunks began to wobble dreamily, as if made of rubber.  At the same time, the verdant patches of the treetops began to move about, shifting positions over the wobbling trunks.  This only increased in intensity, and soon the trunks—or rather the jumbo silver eels—were waggling about maniacally, crisscrossing one another, while the treetops—now ovals of emerald felt—were whirling about in a blur. I estimate all of this took place in the span of four or five seconds.  And then the hysterical landscape overwhelmed me and I went under, fully in salvia’s grip.

To be continued next month.

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