What Does Spiritual Mean?


we murder to dissect
The Electric Ghost was a shimmering blue phantasm, a sort of face in the air, which spoke to me sometimes. I don't remember what it said. I was slightly afraid that it would electrocute me, although I don't think it ever threatened to do so. I'm not sure where, at age 4, I'd got my ideas about electricity and electrocution from.

Some years later (I would have been about 8 or 9 perhaps) I knocked a glass of water over my bedside lamp, and got a buzz off it when I touched it to switch it off. Then it started shorting inside the switch, and the plug socket started making ominous crackling noises. I was shrieking with terror.

I have ever since had a deep phobia of malfunctioning electrical equipment, and wonder whether the Electric Ghost was an early intimation of the likely manner of my death.


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Poetix is interesting cos he's got this internal tension where he wants to be a ratio-naut but ghosts keep whispering to him. Keeps him honest.
Do you think the psychedelic experience is basically trauma shiels? It's an idea I've played with. It's definitely possible.

This question set me off in a few directions because the psychedelic and the traumatic are fluid and tricky concepts. There’s dissensus around how they’re defined, but trying can lead to interesting places.

Yes would be the short answer if you take a broad definition of trauma as an unexpected and formative experience which forces you to question your idea of self with the world around you. I’d say a few of us here get that an intense trip can do that for a few hours or a few years. There’s also the obvious (but pretty rare) traumatically bad trip.

Trauma might be seen as something terrible that causes a breakdown in a dominant operating system. A violation or disruption in how we organise our self. A collision between the wee story you tell yourself and complete senselessness (and sometimes with religious experience, an excess of meaning). In the case of abuse by other humans, maybe someone you know, there’s a breakdown in trust and authority that makes you feel unsafe in the world.

The word trauma is used a lot now, it’s having a moment. You could suggest there’s a trivialisation or dilution going on, but it’s maybe a bit of an awakening too. It’s interesting to see the understanding bubble up in a narcissistic culture. And through the wellness industry. “My trauma.” If people that have been traumatised have encountered something horrible and unknowable, they have access to some terrible knowledge that the rest of us don’t. So there’s a way in which these people can be revered once they ‘own it’, they’ve seen things we wouldn’t believe… but the issue is that most people are too ashamed, or much of the time aren’t even fully aware of what’s happened to them, and the ongoing unconscious effects.

So the cultural salience of the word is maybe a good thing, as it seems across medicine and psychology and culture we’re only starting to get to grips with the scale and effects of traumatic experience (abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, serious injury etc) in shaping who we are and how we act. Maybe, similar to this shame a traumatised individual experiences, there’s a collective suppression too. Homelessness, mental health issues, addiction, violence… a major commonality is childhood trauma.

A little of my (very limited) understanding comes from working in suicide prevention, but mostly The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, a shockingly good book on all this. Tough to get through, very dense and emotionally taxing in parts but life-affirming too. Informed by 30 years of practice with loads of interesting and grim case studies across victims of war experiences, child rape, a woman going through a hysteroctemy performed by surgeons taking the piss about their infidelities while she was fully aware... ( had to put it down and writhe about my bed before going back in). My friend says reading it made her a better person and I think I agree.

Van Der Kolk talks about it as the body’s response to something very bad that overwhelms the central nervous system “Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then, It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.”

During an extremely stressful experience, an ancient auto-pilot for survival kicks in.

From an abstract on trauma’s impact on childhood development

Traumatic events disrupt homeostasis in multiple areas of the brain that are recruited to respond to threat. Use-dependent internalization of elements of the traumatic experience can result in the persistence of fear-related neurophysiologic patterns affecting emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social functioning.

He goes into a lot of detail on the biological processes that occur, but my crude interpretation: with trauma there seems to be a biological imperative, a survival instinct that’s forcing the body and nervous system to remember while the overwhelmed conscious mind is forced to suppress or forget. It’s almost like the rupture from the outside smashes the authority, state control of the ego, and the will to survive erupts through ancient instincts: fight, flight , shit yourself and the lizard brain freeze. It’s interesting to think about the brain evolving as a threat-sensitive “get-out-of-the-way machine”

So the harrowing event has imprinted on your nervous system, you get stuck in a state of hyper-vigilance, and active suppression, hyper-sensitive to environments and situations and people that give your body similar impressions. And the after-effects of the experience have an almost demonic control that animates your behaviour for years, maybe a lifetime after. So.. i’m drinking too much to cope with a pain that I don’t fully comprehend.

Van Der Kolk…
Observing yourself, knowing yourself, being curious about yourself, befriending yourself, taking care of yourself. One of the most striking things that comes out of all the research of trauma is not so much these typical trauma things that people talk about like nightmares and flashbacks. One of the most striking things is the idea of having a hateful relationship to your body: not taking care of your body by abusing alcohol so you don’t feel anything; by smoking dope day and night so you don’t feel anything; by injecting drugs into yourself so you don’t feel anything; by having sex with inappropriate people so you don’t feel anything; by frantically wandering around to make feelings in your body go away. In contrast, the only way to resolve trauma is to get to know yourself and cherish yourself. That is very hard to do as long as your body feels unsafe. Most traumatized people try to get away from their bodies as fast as they can because their bodies stir them up. The body is where the panic is—the fear and the rage. But you need to get to know your rage and your fear and to learn to take care of it

I think when it comes down to it, this is a large part of what our character and behavioural patterns are defined by. Armour against pain. The trauma is the thing which your identity is organised around or in response to. Or, as I said back there, the architecture you build against (in fear of) the spiritual / noumena / real / death / oneness / obliteration

There’s a psychoanalytic view of trauma as destabilisation of the symbolic order, a break in a uniform way of perceiving and setting boundaries in the world, disruption in continuity, in how you model meaning, where gaps in representation are exposed. An encounter with the real. And as far as I understand it trauma is foundational to development, as in an unavoidable part of being human. Birth as the first trauma, the realisation that you are separate from your mother and the breast another, initiation into language another, puberty another? etc

So back to psychedelics as traumatic. Using the broader definition of trauma as a way to break continuity, you could say that it’s the traumatic properties of psychedelics that make them therapeutic. We are somewhat locked in by our egos, and we can be locked in by our past experiences. And the psychedelic experience offers a temporary unlock from that plane. This is what makes them scary and useful.

Some of the experimental solutions Van Der Kolf uses he uses include yoga, theatrical role play, EMDR - Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (Shane Meadows wrote a brilliant article about this in The Guardian). These are ways to unlock the experience from the nervous system and ‘integrate’ into the conscious mind. And practices to allow people to reconnect with their own bodies, and learn to trust others again, and be ok with change and unpredictability.

These are ‘technologies of non-self’, and reading the book I was thinking he should throw psychedelics into the mix. So it was interesting to see a recent job ad for a researcher for a phase 3 trial of MDMA for trauma treatment that he’s leading on in his trauma centre.

MDMA has been very effective at treating PTSD in other trials because (and this is v basic) the euphoria and compassion gives you enough of a boost so that you feel safe to ‘go there’, when trauma will have cause your conscious mind to recoil. So maybe with a guide, you can go back and give the darker bits of your story an unflinching look. Rather than managing symptoms you’re going back to the root, retrieving, observing, recontextualising and integrating the traumatic event.

This is a creative process and that’s why hallucination is useful too. When tripping, you have access to unconscious material in a waking state, psychic material that you can intentionally play with in transmutation. Psychedelics have the potential to heal because they allow us to ‘go outside and play’
At a neuro-chemical level, tripping causes a reduction in bloodflow to the ‘default mode network’...the ‘neurological basis for the self’.

Beckley/Imperial neuroimaging has identified a part of the brain called the "default mode network" implicated in the rumination, self-consciousness and rigid thinking characteristic of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Psychedelics reduce blood flow to this part of the brain, allowing formerly suppressed neural networks and regions to light up.
"With the loss of the repressive control of this government all the other centres start communicating. So you have a more chaotic and entropic form of consciousness, but also a much richer and more flexible form of consciousness.

So rather than these substances adding something, they’re taking stuff away. Taking off our filter and allowing raw information to flow in from the more ancient brain

DMT smoked gives you an awe inspiring information blast through 4d cathedral space. The self is smashed in a way that you can immediately forget that you took it, and also that you’re even a person. But the much slower metabolisation through ayahuasca (or a mushroom trip) allows a drawn out journey. A zoom out that can sometimes allow you to join the dots between things, very big picture thinking about yourself, more points of reference, links between traumas and coping mechanisms. You have time to try on several other perspectives, show yourself how you’ve been seeing yourself.

So that's how I could see the psychedelic as traumatic, a big disruption in the continuity of self.


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Great answer. Wasn't expecting that!

The body keeps the score comes up so much I really am going to have to read it as soon as possible
I’ve been thinking more about brains evolving as ‘get out of the way machines’. Organisms as complex adaptations to threat and trauma. Maybe all organisation and structure. Homeostasis, stress, adaptation and maladaptation. Thought as the avoidance of danger. Or death.

And i’ve been thinking about super structures and ideological systems as responses to trauma. Financial crises as traumatic events, shocks from the outside (or contradictions inside) undermine authority and confidence, challenging representation and value, the system freezes, which force new modes and rituals to re-establish order, repetitions and patterns to return fluidity and homeostasis.

2008 recession as a trauma that allowed Kpunk to expose ‘capitalist realism’. Showing us how we were seeing. Capitalism creates stress through separating you as a subject, placing you in a hierarchy in a hyper-vigilant state, and also alleviates and perpetuates itself by offering stress solutions in the market, and addictive substances.

Language as a response to trauma, and part of a traumatic process, when it’s acquired in children, entering ‘the symbolic order’, separation. And at the macro level, the idea of the acquisition of language, our split from nature…. equating with The Fall, Adam taking the apple.

Viewed in another way trauma might be seen as a function in a complex system. Not a random bad accident. It’s only because of trauma that we have selves and systems.

This might be trite thinking. Common sense. I’m just talking about chaos and order. But you can get useful perspectives on a lot of things taking a trauma-centred approach.
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And I hit on this, Robin Mackay


The theory of trauma was a crypto-geological hybrid from the very start. Darwin and the geologists had already established that the entire surface of the earth and everything that crawls upon it is a living fossil record, a memory bank rigorously laid down over unimaginable aeons and sealed against introspection; churned and reprocessed through its own material, but a horrifying read when the encryption is broken, its tales would unfold in parallel with Freud’s, like two intertwining themes of humiliation.
Abandoning the circumspection with which Freud handles what he still supposes to be ‘metaphorical’ stratal imagery, Dr Daniel Barker’s Cosmic Theory of Geotrauma, or Plutonics, flattens the theory of psychic trauma onto geophysics, with psychic experience becoming an encrypted geological report, the repercussion of a primal Hadean trauma in the material unconscious of Planet Earth. Further developing Professor Challenger’s model of ‘generalised stratification’, Barker ultra-radicalises Nietzschean genealogy into a materialist cryptoscience.


‘Geotraumatics’ draws on everything from geology and microbial evolution to human biology and vocalisation, reinterpreting Earth-history as a series of nested traumas of which human subjectivity is the symptom.


Needless to say, trauma belongs to a time beyond personal memory – Evidently, Geotraumatics radicalizes Professor Challenger’s insistence that schizoanalysis should extend further than the terrain of familial drama, to invest the social and political realms; pushing beyond history and biology, it incorporates the geological and the cosmological within the purview of a transcendental unconscious. The root source of the disturbance which the organism identifies according to its parochial frame of reference – mummy-daddy – or which it construes in terms of the threat of individual death, is a more profound trauma rooted in physical reality itself. Trauma is not personal, and the time of the earth is recorded, accreted, knotted up inside us. All human experience is an encrypted message from Cthelll to the cosmos, the scream of the earth.


Wild Horses
Top post. What do you do for a living Shiels?

Van de Kolk is indeed a great book. He's caught the zeitgeist with it I think. Nailed something of huge contemporary relevance. Sorry if you've said this above but part of why it's been so taken up is that it suggests ways beyond verbal therapy's impasses via various sorts of bodywork, drama, biofeedback, yoga even. How to do therapy at that edge where the experience can't be talked about, discussed? That's what it's about really. Fairly horrifying at points as this material tends to be.


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'Consider coal and steel. There is a place where they meet. The interface between coal and steel is coal-tar. Imagine coal, down in the earth, dead black, no light, the very substance of death. Death ancient, prehistoric, species we will never see again. Growing older, blacker, deeper, in layers of perpetual night. Above ground, the steel rolls out fiery, bright. But to make steel, the coal tars, darker and heavier, must be taken from the original coal. Earth's excrement, purged out for the ennoblement of shining steel. Passed over.

'We thought of this as an industrial process. It was more. We passed over the coal-tars. A thousand different molecules waited in the preterite dung. This is the sign of revealing. Of unfolding. This is one meaning of mauve, the first new color on Earth, leaping to Earth's light from its grave miles and aeons below. There is the other meaning... the succession... I can't see that far yet...

'But this is all the impersonation of life. The real movement is not from death to any rebirth. It is from death to death-transfigured. The best you can do is polymerize a few dead molecules. But polymerizing is not resurrection...


Look at the smokestacks, how they proliferate, fanning the wastes of original waste over greater and greater masses of city. Structurally, they are strongest in compression. A smokestack can survive any explosion - even the shockwave from one of the new cosmic bombs'... 'as you must all know. The persistence, then, of structures favoring death. Death converted into more death. Perfecting its reign, just as the buried coal grows denser, and overlaid with more strata - epoch on top of epoch, city on top of ruined city. This the sign of Death the impersonator.


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That's the problem with Pynchon sometimes. You don't get the feeling there's a vision preceding and informing and underlying the smart Alec extended metaphors. There's no substance.
Top post. What do you do for a living Shiels?

Van de Kolk is indeed a great book. He's caught the zeitgeist with it I think. Nailed something of huge contemporary relevance. Sorry if you've said this above but part of why it's been so taken up is that it suggests ways beyond verbal therapy's impasses via various sorts of bodywork, drama, biofeedback, yoga even. How to do therapy at that edge where the experience can't be talked about, discussed? That's what it's about really. Fairly horrifying at points as this material tends to be.

Just changed jobs to an editor role but comms & campaigning stuff for a suicide prevention org until last year. What about you?

You mean you didn’t read all of that 1000 word post!!? Yes that’s why I mentioned it. The book doesn’t discuss psychedelics but it was clear that they’d have a place eventually, so good to see he’s now trialling MDMA.

On the horrifying bits of the book, it’s interesting that you get something from repeatedly being exposed to the horror and scale, but having it contextualised and explained and addressed in a satisfying way. Like the reading and learning process mirrors the therapy.

I clocked he’d been in the news for accusations of bullying too. Not clear on the detail. If there’s something I learnt in working in that area it’s that even indirect exposure, if repeated, starts to affect group dynamics in ways that are difficult to monitor and contain... ‘vicarious trauma’. It’s part of the reason I had to get out, couldn’t switch off.
That's the problem with Pynchon sometimes. You don't get the feeling there's a vision preceding and informing and underlying the smart Alec extended metaphors. There's no substance.

Loads of ambition, no vision? Haven't read him. If you tell me I can swerve completely i'll just take your word for it