Mindful U Podcast: 88. Nicholas Powers: A Future On Psychedelics

“Last time I sang the national anthem, I was on ecstasy.” (Powers, 2018, Maps.org) Nicholas Powers, PhD, has a no-BS approach to writing, which has been featured on The Wall Street Journal, Truth Out, and The Independent. Tune in for a bold but optimistic conversation on what a psychedelic future might look like.

Find episode 88 of Mindful U  on Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher!

Find Nick’s work at:

https://indypendent.org/authors/nicholas-powers/

https://truthout.org/authors/nicholas-powers/

Nicholas Powers Ph.D. – Psychedelics, Race, Where They Intersect, and Where They Don’t

Featured At Naropa:
https://www.naropa.edu/event/psychedelic-alchemy/
“Psychedelic Alchemy guest speaker Nicholas Powers, PhD, believes that psychedelics must leave the lab and therapy office to give humanity a chance to reimagine itself, and challenge our current path of self-destruction. Remarkably, personal therapy mirrors what happens in social movements: wounded souls return to their real selves, real bodies often discarding former identities like old skin. But according to Powers, we must go beyond healing the individual to healing our history and collective trauma.”

Powers, N. June 15, 2018. “Black Masks, Rainbow Bodies: Psychedelics and Race.” Maps.org. (https://maps.org/news/bulletin/black-masks-rainbow-bodies-psychedelics-and-race/)

Full Transcript Below

Full Transcript: Nicholas Powers

Nicholas Powers

TRT 55:42

 

[MUSIC]

 

Hello, and welcome to Mindful U at Naropa. A podcast presented by Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. I’m your host, David Devine. And it’s a pleasure to welcome you. Joining the best of Eastern and Western educational traditions — Naropa is the birthplace of the modern mindfulness movement.

 

[MUSIC]

 

David:

Hello, everyone and welcome to another episode of the Mindful U podcast. Today we have a very special guest with us: Dr. Nicholas Powers. Nick is a poet, a journalist, and a teacher. He also has a PhD in English, teaches at the SUNY Old Westbury school. He has come on the podcast today to speak with us about how psychedelics can be a useful tool for meaningful growth in society. So welcome to the podcast and how are you doing today?

 

Nicholas Powers:

I’m feeling like I should — I’m exactly where I should be. Thank you, David.

 

David:

In your bathroom — in the sink. Or in the bath — 

 

Nicholas Powers:

I’m hiding out from my — I’m hiding out from my son as he rampages to the living room.

 

David:

I didn’t mean to put you on blast like that. You where you should be, on the —

 

Nicholas Powers:

No, I’m exactly in the bathroom with candles as my friend takes care of my son. He’s like a little mini Godzilla just ripping up…of my life.

 

David:

I think most of us have been there before. We’ve either been in that stage or we know we’ve — we’ve been around little people doing that to us. So, we can feel for you. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, no, he feels like that dinosaur in Jurassic Park when it’s like looking for the kids in the kitchen. 

 

David:

Oh, yeah.

 

Nicholas Powers:

But I’m the kid.

 

David:

Oh yeah, the raptors. Yeah. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

I’m Raptor. 

 

David:

Yeah, I recently saw that movie. So, I’m very — I know what’s going on there. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah. 

 

David:

Well, we’re happy to have you on. So, I just like to start with, where did you get your education from? So, you have a PhD. You’re a doctor. You have an English degree and all that. So where did you get your education from? And also, what inspired you to pursue a PhD in English?

 

Nicholas Powers:

Oh, the streets, son! LAUGHS. I’ve got the education.

 

David:

Hey, you know, that’s the answer.

 

Nicholas Powers:

No, I mean, I’m half joking. 

 

David:

Just half.

 

Nicholas Powers:

Half joking. Yeah, I think the — you know, growing up mostly in the cities, and then also having some of my middle school and high school in Hershey, Pennsylvania. But then my family was from New York City, mostly Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Astoria. And so going back and forth, between those two worlds, one with cows and cow patties. It was a very rural flatland rather than going to the concrete of the city, where at least at that time of New York, there was a lot of crime, people were looking over their shoulders. So, I think what I’ve learned was how my body, like a rubber band, could relax in the country. And then when I got to the city, my body became tense, because I had to always watch out. And there were odd pleasures in both. 

 

So then, when I graduated, I was a reporter. I went to Emerson College. And that’s where I first took psychedelics. And the experience of psychedelics again taught me how my senses could leave the boxes of my thoughts, and float freely. And I had to follow my senses, like a child trying to catch a bubble that he blew. And had to follow that. And so that was a good experience, because it taught me that thoughts and our sense perceptions aren’t always the same thing. And then the next phase of education came from reporting and listening to people’s stories, and how again, stories don’t always fit the official narrative. And one of the gifts of having a free democracy and free journalism is the ability to tell stories that change the way we think of the world. 

 

And finally, I got to the graduate center in New York City, in August 2001. So, September happens. And so, for the next 10 years, we’re doing this war on terror, and going to Burning Man through those years. And basically, again, relearning how emotions pass through people, masses of people, almost like waves in the ocean, pass through fish, and you’re just kind of carried away. So yeah, that’s where I got —

 

David:

So, you’re a burner.

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, I’m a burner. And it’s —

 

David:

An English burner.

 

Nicholas Powers:

And it’s like, an English literally, I mean, which is almost a cliche at this point, right?

 

David:

Yeah. Very cool. So, you are currently an educator. I’m curious, where do you currently teach and like, tell me a little bit about that. And also, can you tell me what can a student expect while being in your classroom and maybe what are some of the titles of your classes that you teach?

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, some of the — some of the classes I teach this semester, one’s Literature Across Cultures Too, which is an introduction into literary theory. So, one of the books we use is Louise Tyson’s, “Using Critical Theory” book. And it’s a kind of basic introduction to new criticism, which is looking only at the text of historicism, which is the historical background of a text. Feminist criticism, looking at the images of women. And the text critical race theory, not what you may have heard from Fox News, like actual, like critical race theory. Like literary — literary criticism about the images of race in text. Also, queer criticism. And then the reader response. How a reader recreates a novel in their brain. So, it’s actually different from the one on the page. 

 

So, there’s lots — so that’s one class. The other class is creative nonfiction. So, we did Trevor Noah’s, “Born a Crime.” We did Emily Ratajkowski — I think I’m mispronouncing her last name, but her recent book called, “My Body.” And that’s a kind of a supermodels, exposure of the sexism within the beauty industry. 

 

And the last one that we’re doing is Dan Savage is, “The Kid,” where he’s one of the earliest gay couples to adopt a child. He did it in Seattle — in Portland, Seattle, in like 1999. So, the kid’s name is Dylan and, you know, just his transformation from being kind of a single man into a married man, to his boyfriend, Barry, now their spouses and then now to be, you know, two fathers to this young boy, who grew into a man named Dylan. And just seeing how much love that they had, like their hearts were on a roller coaster as they were getting close to fatherhood. So, it’s really beautiful to see that. 

 

The last class is major authors. In that class, we are dealing with the topic of love through time. So, we did “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera dealing with a kind of polygamous or yeah, polygamous husband and monogamous — monogamous wife during — in Prague when the Russians invaded. So, it’s very timely. We’re reading that literally as the Russian invasion was happening. And while the — now we’re finishing up with the “Saga”, and then one more, “The Black Panther” from 1967.

 

David:

Such a literary man you are! 

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, it’s great. You know, it’s just, you know, I think the best thing for me is, I get to enjoy the stories, but then I get to enjoy the students recreate their stories.

 

David:

Yeah. So, what kind of stories are you gravitate to other than the ones that you teach? What do you like?

 

Nicholas Powers:

More and more, I like experimental prose that mimics the synesthesia of a psychedelic state. So that could be everything from, you know, the classic stream of consciousness of, you know, Ulysses by James Joyce. Virginia Woolf’s, “The Waves” or “To the Lighthouse,” more modern experimental stuff, it’s coming out of smaller presses. I have always had a great love for surrealism, like concrete poetry, projective verse, Charles Olson. Recently, I’ve kind of re-looked at Octavio Paz, yeah, Octavio Paz, Charles Olson. So yeah, just some of the — the more kind of — and those are older ones. But then the newer ones, there’s some interesting poets, you know, who are on the scene, and I’m just kind of diving into — into just experimental prose. And I think part of it is it — it dives, it overlaps really well, with psychedelics.

 

David:

Beautiful. Do you write anything too?

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, I journal all the time. And it just flows from poetry to poetry prose, prose, you know it’s poetic prose to reporting, to critical criticism, like, you know, political essays that I write for Truthout or for the independent. So, I just kind of just let it constantly flow. And now I have a poetry group again. And I’ve been writing a series of poems on fatherhood. 

 

David:

Yeah. Beautiful. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah. It’s really good. Like a lot of poems about what it’s like to feel a love for your son.

 

David:

Yeah. Okay, so my best friend just had a baby like, two years ago. And he sends me — because I’m like, the godfather. I’m a father, I’m a godfather. And then he sends me this message today, little — little Saoirse, just saying, David, I love you, good morning. And I was just like — like, how do parents deal with the like, overload of just sweetness children have — I just don’t I — and I just told him I was like, dude, I don’t even — I don’t even know how you do it. I don’t know how you do it. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

We hold on to those beautiful moments, because they balance out the moments like recently, I took my kid to — like what became a ritual. We went to an Indian restaurant, just right down the street. And I’ve gone there for years, and the guys know me. So, I’m bringing my kid and they’re happy. They’re like, oh, the next generation, right. And he’s usually really good. He eats his poppadom and samosas. I get chicken tikka masala. This time, he was like, he gets into this mode where he doesn’t share. And I’m like, you know, so the food comes and I’m trying to get my samosa. He’s like, no. No! And he screams and he jumps on the seat, and he runs around and I’m just like, yo, I’m hungry. He just had a — he just lost it. He had a fit. So, you know, for every time that they’re cute, there’s also a time, you know, when they’re monsters.

 

David:

Yeah, we were — I mean, we were like that at one point in our lives. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah. Yeah. 

 

David:

Beautiful. Okay, so let’s get right into it. So, we wanted to go into like, anti-war, counterculture psychedelics. And again, I’m a super fan of this, I’ve been talking to a lot of people about assisted psychedelic therapies with ketamine and like mushrooms. We just have a program at Naropa that has therapeutic assisted therapy. It’s like a program that you can take. It’s not like a degree just yet. So, you know, today, I was curious, you’ve come on the podcast to speak about the psychedelics and how they have infiltrated our culture and how we are in position to become a catalyst to create a society and community to develop useful and proactive relationships amongst the people that we live with. And what I’m curious about is how we see these powerful medicines being used to develop new forms of governing principles. And the way we go about business as usual.

 

Nicholas Powers:

Hmm, governing principles and business as usual. SIGHS

 

David:

Because if you think about it, it’s like these things that are, you know, people have used these illegal substances, but they feel very helpful, but yet they’re illegal. So, it’s like, these governing principles are not allowing us to go deeper into this thing that essentially could help us. And I’m wondering, like, why is that?

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, I mean, so when I look at the 1968 generation, specifically branded by the summer of love at Haight Ashbury, that psychedelics, as you rightfully pointed out, have been part of human existence from the very beginning. So, it’s not a question of, do psychedelics exist? It’s “Where do they exist in the culture? What role do they play, and a helpful three-point category for the audience would simply be that psychedelics could fill the role of sustaining the status quo. Right, so they’re — they’re part of the ceremony or rite of passage, that there are specific moments when people take psychedelics to achieve a new role preexisting in that society, right. And then there is I would say, a kind of reactionary box for psychedelics, which is that they can actually in a sense, devolve the society, or in a sense be used for I would say a reactionary purposes, and more conservative purposes, because the psychedelics themselves are just the chemicals. It’s the set — it’s the setting, it’s the frame that they’re in. So, they can upset the status quo, but in a very destructive way. And, you know, some people talk about how, you know, the Nazis would do meth, you know, different examples of — of the CIA, you know, experimenting with psychedelics.

 

David:

LSD, yeah, they were trying to use it for like a truth serum. And then it was like, oh, well, you can use it against our people.

 

Nicholas Powers:

So, it became a weapon, right? And then there’s the other box, which is, I would say, the — the progressive, or the revolutionary role of psychedelics, which is to upset the status quo, and to pour acid on the chains of association and attachment that we have to our social selves. And once that chain melts, we’re free to rediscover ourselves, or to recreate ourselves and to recreate the world. So, for me, that is most visibly seen in the history of the summer of love and the Haight Ashbury crowd, because they were the ones who when America was in the kind of, again, it’s the Vietnam War, and, you know, here were hippies putting flowers in gun barrels. And they were daring to live in Golden Gate Park. And, you know, being barefoot and drumming, and of course, there were problems with that. There was hunger, there was homelessness, there was sexual assault. But overall, the attempt was to create a better world than the one that America was being — that was offered by kind of a capitalist, you know, war machine engine. So —

 

David:

And this was during the Vietnam era, too. So, they were — this is when they’re like enlisting people.

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah. And so, for me, when you look at psychedelics, you could see a trajectory, literally, the psychedelics are there, but they move through different spaces in society. So, when it first comes through, like LSD first comes through, and MDMA. But so, you know, Cary Grant was using that, you know, and offering that to parties in Hollywood and one of the lead organizers or, you know, of Alcoholics Anonymous, was saying, this was great to use to help people get off their addiction for alcohol. So as long as it was used by kind of a Hollywood elite, and it was inside the therapy office and inside the laboratory, then it was fine. But when psychedelics jumped to the therapist’s office and jumped the laboratory wall and out into the street, and it became used as a tool by an alienated youth against the American war machine, then it’s place in society shifted, and now it became a chemical and an experience that the ruling powers were becoming incredibly terrified about. And so, they created this kind of moral scare, this moral panic around LSD, so that all of these, you know, exaggerations and lies really came out. If you do LSD, your brain is gonna boil inside of your head, you’re gonna go insane, you’re gonna be scratching at invisible spiders crawling all over your skin, you’re gonna be in a straitjacket inside of a mental hospital. And you know, it’s corrupting the youth. And then, with that, propaganda, the drug war propaganda really kind of setting in place and creating this hard case around the idea of psychedelics, the experience of it. Then, now, you know, over the past 20 or 30 years, you’ve had, again, researchers, organizations, like say, MAPS, John Hopkins University, and others, and many, many people and other — kind of an underground network of LSD and MDMA therapists, that they began pushing against the drug war propaganda. And slowly psychedelics began to again move out of the demonized stigma that they had been placed in and moving into an acceptable role, integration back into mainstream society, but it was through specifically the medical model. And that’s what we’re seeing now. Now, the last point to make of this is that the medical model has been described as a Trojan horse, which is, you know, the classic image in Greek literature, which is the Acadians in the Iliad, you know, create a Trojan horse. They go in, and then they could sneak out and then destroy the city of Troy. And so, the idea is that if you — if psychedelics can enter mainstream society, in the kind of Trojan horse of medical benefit therapy, then once they’re legalized society then can rediscover the social revolutionary potential, hidden inside that Trojan horse. And so, the city will fall. The American War Machine will fall, capitalism will fall, because finally people will be like, oh, I get to be free from my social self. I get to recreate 1968. I get to be, again, someone who’s a hippie, who’s free from the business, the CEO, or the corporation’s machinery. And I would say that probably the more realistic image is an iceberg, that the medical model is just the tip of the iceberg, that most psychedelic use is actually in festivals. It’s in parties, it’s in small gatherings, it’s individual trips that people are taking. And so, there’s already a huge amount of psychedelic use in the country. And it’s probably just growing. Now, that’s speculation, but I’m sensing that it’s growing, as more people come out of the quote, unquote, chemical closet. But the thing is that when so many people are coming out of the — out of the chemical closet, but they’re doing it from like, the underground, right, they’re finally kind of emerging, almost like groundhogs or rabbits coming out for spring. I think what’s happening is that there has to be a way different model for — than the Trojan horse model, which is say that people are already trying to escape corporate consciousness. They’re already trying to escape dominating patriarchy. They’re already trying to escape homophobia. They’re already tried to escape racism, like, people are already doing all these things all the time. So, it’s more of just acknowledging what’s there than trying to sneak transcendence in through a Trojan horse.

 

David:

Yeah, and you know, you’re talking about escaping, but in some sense, it’s like, we’re escaping the conditions in which the, you know, the world has conditioned us to be and not realizing we are just ego, we’re also like a soul being. We have so much more than just this surface level of interacting, of the things we think about, you know, because it’s like, most of the thing that will happen if you do psychedelics is like, you want to call your mom and tell her you love her. Like mom, I love you, you know? It teaches you how to be a holistic being, you don’t see a difference between other people. But you can also see how you’re uniquely beautiful at the same time. So, it’s almost like an escaping of a conditioning, in which the, you know, the corporate model kind of wants you to be. So, it’s very scary for people who make a lot of money because they see how thin it is. The veil is very thin for them.

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, I feel what you’re saying is What having a social self does, it creates a psychological bottleneck. So, for all of us, we’re all like these bottles filled with the universe, with the cosmos, with Haley’s condiments, and, you know, beautiful new nebula and star hatchery and all of these undiscovered colors are inside of us. But then, in order to be a responsible citizen, we bottleneck all of that into very repetitive, you know, routine, ego, blah, blah, blah. And I think what psychedelics allow us to realize momentarily through the trip is how large we are inside, but also how large other people are inside. It’s almost like a universe trapped in a mirror, reflecting another universe trapped in another mirror. And then when the two mirrors kiss, the universes can kind of flow back and forth between each other. And so, for me, the beautiful danger that psychedelics brings to the world is it actually shows that on a deeper level, a lot of these kind of facades, and all of the wars and all of the bigotry and all of the inequality that is built on these masks that we wear, that on a deeper level those can come crumbling down. Once our inner largeness beats another person’s inner largeness, we can embrace it, embrace them, and become larger together.

 

David:

Yeah, coming together, I think is also the scary part for them. Because not only will we come together in a community of people that you know, may live in proximity to each other, but we may even come like an internet web of community because we’re so connected. So, we might be feeling for what’s going on in Shanghai with all these lockdowns and this like really craziness. We can feel for these people that are going through such hard times. And it’s a little bit easier to be removed from that because you’re like, oh, you know, like, I gotta take out the trash. Or I got like, my kid screaming in the back, or, you know, I got things to do. I got daily things to do. I got time to think about other people’s feelings or their hardships at this moment, cuz I got my own. You know, it’s really easy to just bypass it sometimes.

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, and there’s a desire to bypass it, you know, it’s the same reason that, you know, we see shit on the sidewalk with stuff around it. We see something hot, we don’t touch it. We don’t want to feel pain. But I guess, what I’ve discovered is when I listen to people who — even strangers who I don’t know, or I rediscover friends who I’ve known for years, and if I just — when you listen to the people’s pain, that there is an alleviation of the weight that you see on them. Immediately they can — they’re letting go of weight, and it doesn’t mean that you carry it, it just means that you’re helping them let it go. So, I try not to be afraid of feeling even the difficulties that other people are going through. You know, just try to carry it with them.

 

David:

Yeah, being present is very therapeutic, especially for a friend. And I can feel that. So, you know, we’re talking about illegalized drugs and the demonizing of people who take them and or getting in trouble for it. How in such a world of political corruption and misinformation do we prevail with such a usage of psychedelics that we can use it and apply it to the collective for this healing, because it seems like they just want to suppress it in such a way that we can’t use it. But there’s like, a lot of responsible people out there that have done their homework. They have done their homework, whether they’re researching it, whether they’ve done the medicines, and they’ve worked with many clients, and they see how beneficial it is. And it’s not easy to access some of that information. And or like, politicians just don’t want to really go there. And I’m just wondering, how can we help move along legislation and or just be able to be heard?

 

Nicholas Powers:

No, I hear. I mean, there’s so many groups, and I’m sure you’ve probably talked to these people. But there’s so many groups starting, who are trying to push legislation around psychedelics. You know, and one guy I know, who is a really good guy, a really good friend. You know, I interviewed him for a recent article about, you know, psychedelics and masculinity. And the friend that I have, who’s one of the people pushing on policy, his name is Michael Haskell-Hoehl, all right, and he’s founder of the Healing Equity and Liberation, and the acronym is HEAL. And it’s a social justice organization. And it’s trying to push progressive opening policy at a federal level. And, you know, he tells me stories, and you know, I don’t — I don’t even remember the name exactly of the politician, but he was talking to a politician. And literally, what came out of their mouths was drug war propaganda from like, 40 years ago. And you know, Micah has — you know, he’s — he’s on the phone with them, or on a zoom, and he’s seeing the screen or he actually, now the COVID is a little bit in the rearview mirror, I don’t know if he was actually in the room with this person. But you know, he just was so frustrated, but you know, you have to kind of put your frustration in your back pocket, and just try to like, let this person say their piece and then slowly try to almost like, you know, that game of tower of blocks you put in a tower and you have to pull one block out. So, he has to very gently be pulling blocks out until like, the person’s like, comfortable letting it fall, you know?

 

David:

Without knocking them down, to let them know their thought partner and…but also to be like, hey, you know, you might be a little wrong on that. And here’s why. And, you know, I want to invite you to think this way.

 

Nicholas Powers:

You know, and I think that’s part of the tactic is to go there and it’s just realize, like, look, yelling at someone, as emotional satisfying as it is in the minute, and it’s really good, you know, but on a practical level, I think this was maybe you know what being an adult is, it’s like, at some point, you know, to do the greater good, you have to sometimes put your feelings to the side. So, you know, eventually talked to this person, I don’t know where if he changed this particular politicians mind, but he is working nonstop, among many other people who I know, to change policy around psychedelics. And some places there are surprising openings, because it could be bipartisan, because there has been a lot of work with PTSD and soldiers. So those who are conservative and Republican or even right wing, who celebrate the military can understand the value of wounded warriors getting help, right. And then on the progressive side, you can say there’s people who’ve had really, really difficult times because of drug abuse, addiction, could be trauma from, you know, shootings, and or jail. And so, you know, what happens is, is that there’s a chance for bipartisan consensus that now that the science is in, and that you know, at least from MAPS, I think if you’re at like phase three, and you know, there’s counties and cities all across the country who have legalized psychedelics, I think Oakland is at the forefront, probably Boulder, Colorado as well. 

 

David:

Oregon as well.

 

Nicholas Powers:

Oregon, right. Yeah. 

 

David:

Yeah. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

All right. And so, there is a wave of change around psychedelics. And it is opening up the doors that have been locked for the past 30 years. And so, I think as long as we don’t kind of come at it, in a kind of snarky, snobby, wag the finger in your face, but really tried to put maybe some of our frustration, you know, as righteously and authentically as it is, put it to the side, and go to the people and say, look, this is for the benefit of everyone. People you care about can be helped by this. And people I care about can be helped by this. 

 

David:

True. I think one thing to know is there’s a difference between psychedelics and drugs. Because I think psychedelics, they’re not addictive, they’re not kind of fun to take sometimes. They’re very dissolving of your ego, they can be very uncomfortable feelings. And sometimes it might scare you to never do it again. But what’s interesting is psychedelics has the ability to heal you from an addiction from drugs. And I think what happens is, we lose the idea that when we talk to politicians, or like old school minded individuals, they don’t really know that it’s different than it is like crack or meth or cocaine or, you know, just some, like really hard drugs. So, it’s easy to demonize when — what they don’t really know is its psychedelics are different. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

Well, you know, so it’s interesting, because what you just articulated is what — there’s a really, really powerful author, I think its Carl Hart. And I know him actually, and so we talked. And he has a phrase called psychedelic exceptionalism, which is exactly what you just said, which is the — and he disagrees with it. He says, it is a false narrative that psychedelics are so dramatically different in their effect than other drugs. Now, you know, there has been some legitimate pushback saying, well, you know, some psychedelics are actually different chemical compositions, they actually do have a slightly different effect. But his main message, I think, is absolutely true, which is that a lot of the drugs that people have — they were demonized primarily by the government during the drug war, are actually in themselves not addictive. And he knows because he would actually give people in a controlled laboratory setting, crack, you know, and he would offer them like an experiment, like, do you want to hit of crack or do you want five bucks. And people were like, let me get the five bucks, or 10 bucks, or whatever it was, you know, back in the 90s, when five bucks meant something. So, when he realized, and then also he studied the chemical composition. And what became clear to him was that it’s not often the drugs themselves that cause addiction. It’s the depression in people’s lives that force them to use drugs as a numbing agent, against the pain that they’re feeling from elsewhere. So, the drugs aren’t themselves. And so, he’s seen people and actually, this is the last statistic that I’ll share, but his book, he’s got three books now, Chasing — “Chasing Liberty,” and “High Price.” And in it, what he chronicles, one of the startling facts that he showed which — which I knew intuitively, but it was so good to get the numbers was that most people who use drugs never get addicted. I think the number is like 70 to 80% of people who use quote unquote, hard drugs, never get addicted. They use it for a little while, and then they stop. There’s maybe 20 some percent of people who use what we would call hard drugs, who get addicted. And again, what the statistics and the overlapping science shows is that some people maybe are really suffering from trauma, and that drugs are a way of making themselves almost feel normal again, because in their everyday pain, because of trauma, whether it was abuse, whether it’s actually physical trauma, sexual, mental verbal, that pain is so destroying them, that drugs seem almost normal. That the state of — that the euphoria from drugs is almost just returning them to a normal state. And so, because that is so powerful for them, that’s what we see the quote unquote, signs of addiction.

 

David:

Interesting. I’ve never heard that before. I’ve never heard that.

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, I mean, he literally was on — on horizons and he showed like — he literally was on stage. He’s like, this is the chemical composition of PCP, I think it was. And this is the chemical composition, I think I forgot what it was, but maybe MDMA or something. I may have the exact chemicals wrong, but he basically showed that this quote unquote, psychedelic, and this hard drug, were chemical cousins, they weren’t chemically that different.

 

David:

Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if I put MDMA in the psychedelic world, but it does have therapeutic. What’s interesting, too, is like DMT is naturally occurring in your brain. So — so we have some of these chemicals that are endogenous to how we live our lives. And yeah, wow, that’s — that’s interesting. And you can almost assume that someone who has like a — like an awesome life, living their best life, and everything’s going well, I mean, there is nothing to hide. They don’t need something to suppress their depression. They don’t need something to suppress uncomfortable feelings that they don’t want. And I guess, drugs do have that ability to momentarily relieve someone’s depression or things that they’re going through that may be difficult. So, it’s maybe not the best way to go about it. But it is like a short term alleviation of one’s pain. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, yeah. And the consequences are, obviously, to your health. Because if you abuse any chemical, it’s going to hurt, but then also, there’s the legality of it. Because it’s illegal, because it’s in the hands of the criminal underclass, that means that there’s so much violence around that temporary euphoria, and that temporary healing, you know, whether it’s sex work, whether it’s actual shootings, whether it’s having to steal, whether jail time. So, it’s the penalties and dangers around even that temporary escape, that brief crack of light in the darkness, that makes drug use so much more worse than it has to be.

 

David:

So let me ask you this. When it comes to governing bodies, we tend to have a patriarchal functionality about it in the way that the powers that be function in a very patriarchal, like men society. And I’m wondering, if we were in a matriarchal society, do you think the use in the legalities of drugs would be a little different? Like, how do you see that?

 

Nicholas Powers:

You know, that’s interesting, our patriarchy has a cherished image of what a man should be. And that is, the warrior man. We see him celebrated everywhere. And that too many of us men, then measure our manhood against that ideal, against the image of the Spartan with a shield and the sword or Captain America or Ironman, or, you know, take your pick of whatever or —

 

David:

It’s like the hero — the hero, you know.

 

Nicholas Powers:

And, because that is the selling point, the marketable image of masculinity within a patriarchy, that it becomes, you know, with that hero becomes a sense of armor, that the hero is impenetrable, invulnerable, always wins the fight, may get wounded, but never loses. And that image is in opposition to the exploration of the inner world of psychedelics, which exposes that real, actual men, not the image of manhood, but real actual men have as many complicated emotions, have whole worlds inside of them, have feminine qualities as well as masculine qualities, have identified with women their whole life from their moms, their aunts, their older sisters, female friends. So, it’s not like there’s any man who lives in a gender vacuum. We all have women inside of us, because we were — we were — many of us were either just more often, or at least in part raised with women and around women, and vice versa women with men. So, in reality, real men come from trans to cis, from gay to straight, all different temperaments, all different body types. And what psychedelics does is because it exposes the reality, or at least has a possibility of exposing the real — the reality of actually existing men, as opposed to this kind of warrior, Brad Pitt, you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger, like that kind of image, then I think that that’s one of the cultural reasons psychedelics within patriarchy, don’t often find a place in our stories. How we describe ourselves, how we talk to ourselves to other people. Now, if it’s under a matriarchy, it really depends what kind of matriarchy it is and how its structured. You know, and does that then leave more space for the reality of men, but then does that come at the price of a highly specialized image of women that then they themselves are kind of suffocated by or bottlenecked by? So, you know, in the end, some — I was on the podcast, Mythic Masculine, with Ian, and he actually introduced the idea that none of matriarchy or pat — patriarchy, but have a partnership culture in which it’s not about dominating other people, but it’s about living in a constant state of partnership — partnership was the goal and the ideal, rather than dominating other people, whether that’s patriarchy, matriarchy, etc. And I thought that was a helpful intervention. So, I guess the short answer to your question is that since I’ve never lived in a matriarchy, and I don’t know what kind of matriarchy would rise, like a phoenix out of the ashes of dismantled patriarchy. All I know is that the patriarchy that we exist in now creates the image of the hero warrior, which is in opposition to the reality of men. And that psychedelics, it doesn’t have a place in our story, because it often exposes our inner reality, as opposed to this kind of false image that we see in our cell phones, in our movie screens, in our computer screens, in the movies, and the magazines, everything we read, it’s the same image behind it all. I think we need as men, that one of the first steps to feel comfortable in dismantling patriarchy, especially in its most violent forms, is to acknowledge our reality with new stories. And I think psychedelics can help us have new stories of ourselves. 

 

David:

Beautiful. If psychedelics were never illegal, how would you see them in society nowadays? What kind of roles do you think they would have? Do you think they would be so important? Or would they be kind of like this ulysses, you go have a weekend, once in your life, and you have this amazing alternating experience, and then you just kind of do it once and you just have that, back in the philosophy days, I think they did that with mushrooms. And I’m just wondering, like, it feels kind of hard to think about it. But what would it look like if we never really made them illegal? And in a sense, I can almost see it as what you just described of like a partnership, relationship of building society, instead of this patriarchy or matriarchy. But is there — is there anything else that you want to say about that? 

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, I think for right now, it seems that our civilization, at least the West, so I am, you know, born in the US, born in New York, part of the West, and our civilization is increasingly incompatible with sustainable life on the planet. It’s incompatible because we, number one, are in a patriarchy that continues to wage war, when the weapons that we use to wage them can destroy life on the planet, nuclear weapons. And whatever your feelings about gender roles, evolution, evolutionary psychology, what men and women should do, etc, the final fact is that a patriarchy that continues to wage war with nuclear weapons, sleeping in silos in the ground, or in submarines swimming underneath the waves of the ocean, is not compatible with like, sustainable life. Two, that our economic system of Global Capitalism, even Communist China, the economy is a capitalist one, that it is producing too much carbon for the air. It is producing too much plastic for the oceans, and it is still producing poverty, and social inequality. And the environmental price is one that we can’t sustain. So, the West then is confronted with a human crisis. And I think that the role that psychedelics has to have right now, and I like your phrasing of it, it’s a partnership role. I think we need to not see psychedelic as a weekend retreat, as a once in a lifetime treat, as a temporary carwash for the brain where we put you know our brains into a psychedelic carwash and hope that they come out squeaky clean on the other side. I think that we need to realize that psychedelics are a partner that we have to have a continuous relationship with, until we break out of these — out of this death drive, that is speeding us increasingly faster to the wall, to the — 

 

David:

Proverbial wall. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, which us as species just flats and dies. So that looks to me as the legalization and multiple sites, but that the modality is no longer just an individual healing, but the set and setting is about communal healing as well. And so, psychedelics are used in a communal setting, once or twice a month, that we have to consistently shift our consciousness away from the social machine that we are trapped in now.

 

David:

Okay, beautiful. So, say for instance, we did have psychedelic autonomy. And we can get rid of a lot of misconceptions about what society would think would happen or wouldn’t happen. And, you know, the people that are stoked on having this autonomy and the people who are not. So, what do you think we could see in a society like, what changes would we see right away? Would you see communities coming together? Would you see laws sort of changing a bit? We would see how, instead of putting people in jail, we can have more reform around easing them out of like an addiction phase? What are some things that you imagine?

 

Nicholas Powers:

I think, so step one, is psychedelics become part of what’s called the mental health infrastructure package. Say, President Biden, or maybe after him, President Harris, or whoever, says that we are going to invest a trillion dollars in mental health for the United States. And part of that package is a psychedelic treatment — or psychedelic enhanced therapy, to really help some people who have been devastated by COVID. And who have intergenerational trauma that comes from racial suppression, gender suppression, poverty, and then these treatment centers start popping up, in some of the hardest hit neighborhoods, and people start taking this medicine. And the set and setting and the therapeutic model is one that yes, it does address an individual’s pain and suffering. But it also asks the person well, what’s the world that you — now that you know that you are suffering in this way, and you know, that other people are suffering so slightly, like a Buddhist lesson, that life is filled with some element of suffering and other people —

 

David:

Suffering exists.

 

Nicholas Powers:

Suffering exists. How do we then move this healing beyond just this, you, to us, so all of us. And then the next stage would — it would be beautiful if that starts to have like, conversations just happening in random places, people are like, yeah, I did psychedelic therapy. I was like, oh, you did it. This is what I learned, oh, this is what you learn. So, and then they happen at the bar, they happen at the subway station, maybe they happen, you know, at the farm, you know, they happen with stacks of hay, maybe they happen on the roadside, and they begin to happen all over, and people start talking that, oh, man, I’ve been carrying this for so long. I don’t want to carry this anymore. You know, and other people like I don’t want to carry this either, man, I want to let this shit go. And then people start saying, you know what, why don’t you come to this — this place, I think we’re gonna have like a healing fire. Like, just bring whatever you need to and dump it in the fire. And it’s the same thing that happened at Burning Man, I think in like 1984, ’88 or ’89, where Larry Harvey went and burned an effigy of himself. I think, burned the man and people for the first two to three years of, yeah, Baker’s Beach, like at first it was just 10 to 20 people that became like a 100 people, and then they fled the police and went to the desert. But what it was, was a spontaneous act of burning, you know, symbolically, his old self. And so what if people began to do that first ignition that created this Burning Man culture that we know, but recreated it all over the country of healing fires, and so people started saying, you know, I really want to get rid of this, you know, so people began to bring to the fire elements of their past, things that hurt, you know, maybe they screamed into the fire the name of someone who abused them. You know, maybe, you know, people threw into the fire, you know, words and things that people — you know, had said to them. You know, maybe they threw into the fire, you know, their medicine that they were taking, you know, that they didn’t really need, or they threw into the fire drugs that they were addicted to, they didn’t want to use anymore. Or maybe people who were violent threw into the fire the bullets that they had — that they wanted to shoot. And then next thing you know, maybe the wounded soldiers just came, and they threw their metals into the fire, you know, and the addicts threw their drugs into the fire and the people who were hurt threw names into the fire and all over the country, there was little healing fires and people began to like really throw that stuff in. And then we started going deeper into history and people are like, why are we carrying all this crazy shit? You know, and people maybe found KKK outfits from you know, grandparents and great grandparents and they threw those into the fire. You know, and like and people even through holy books into the fire like, man, this, this religion has made me feel like half a human being, you know, and they threw holy books into the fire and, you know, all of it. And next thing, you know, they’re seeing each other and they’re like, you know, and then they threw political books into the fire, you know, like, Ann Rand and Capital by Marx and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. But if people were just like, they just threw all that stuff into the fire, and they looked at each other, and then for the first time they realize, we’re just these heart beating human beings, breathing for a few years on a planet floating in nothingness. And this is all we have. All we have is each other. There’s no gods, there’s no masters, there’s no theories. Nothing — no one’s coming to save us, we can only save each other. And we begin to dance, and we dance around the fire. And so, we go into the third phase, where we have this great shaking, dancing, and we just start shaking off all of this pain. And we realize that we have — we have all the food and it starts to transform the economic system and the political system. And people don’t know what to do with it at first. And it just — but it’s so contagious, and so joyful, and it’s free, and it’s open for everyone that it starts to create, you know, people are still doing psychedelics, but this is the thing, maybe they’re doing psychedelics, but not as much because maybe having a psychedelic is really just letting the soul out. Maybe that’s what makes you feel free. Not the MDMA, not the mushrooms, not the psilocybin or the LSD. And then — and then finally, where we get to this place where we realize like, this is who we wanted to be the whole time. And then everything can start all over again.

 

David:

Yeah. Beautiful. You’re just so visual when you describe these things to me, and I’m so into it. So, I got one more question for you. You know, when we hear the word dismantling, we tend to cringe and get scared. And I think there’s a population out there that really likes the word dismantling. And then I think there’s a lot of other people that don’t, and they tend to get really nervous. Do you think there is a way where we can phase out this scariness of dismantling sort of sense of what we’re trying to do, and help co-collaborate with people of the future, people of the past and into a more positive society and to create something together instead of — instead of like, oh, we’re gonna do this, whether you’re with us or not, you know, because I don’t think psychedelics has that vibe, psychedelics is very holistically visioned. We want everyone to thrive and everyone to succeed, especially others and self. So instead of allowing people to cringe, how can we co collaborate together?

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, no, what I think you’re bringing up is a very, very pinpoint solid question. Because the — the rhetoric of the left has turned towards aggressive tones, and words, like we got to dismantle and defund. And I understand the impulse, because I feel that way too, towards systems that are oppressive. That I see, you know, like the police, you know, almost like, you know, it’s like, fishermen out in the Atlantic Ocean, like they’re just like, you know, sweeping up whole generations of children. And literally putting them into the — into the jails, right, you know, mass incarceration. So, I get angry. I do think, again, you have to put, as an adult, you have to kind of — and as someone who’s strategic, you gotta put your feelings to the side and say, well, what’s the most effective? And the most effective is when people hear something positive about creating together or going someplace together. So, for me, instead of dismantling, it’s like, no, let’s create a new world. Or let’s have an exodus, where we’re leaving psychologically and spiritually, let’s have an exodus, and leave this old world behind, and let’s go create a new one. So, it doesn’t mean like you physically move, but it means psychologically, you begin to start treating yourself and other people in a radically different way. So, I think it’s about choosing language that’s love based, creation based, and movement based, that I think actually will help make it easier for people to act out the change, that the language of dismantling and defunding was trying to achieve, but failed, because it just scared the shit out of people.

 

David:

Yeah, I think if we’re going to be changing policy and legislation, and also people’s minds, we can’t be scared. It might — it might be scary while we do it. But if it’s scaring people right from the start, it might be a lot more difficult to do in the beginning. So, we have to have, how you said, like a — the loving language, which, in a sense, we don’t even really have that at the moment. I actually just spoke with someone the other day about social justice and racial justice, and just how we have like a punishment model, we want to punish someone if they do something wrong, instead of have a restorative outlook upon it and willing to bring them in and have two parties talk to each other about their differences and to realize where everyone’s coming from because I don’t know if we do that enough. And so, changing our language, you know, you’re — you’re a very literature language person. And the way you describe it, it just sounds so like, I think that’s it. I think that’s the — what we’re — what we’re trying to manage here.

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah, there’s a song from the 70s that says if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. right?

 

David:

Love the one you’re with. Yeah.

 

Yeah. Yeah. I love — yeah. I love it — it’s a great song, right? And it’s great because I’m such a hoe that I love that song because it’s like, yeah, just be whoever you’re around, like, right? 

 

David:

Yeah!

 

Nicholas Powers:

But, I think the modern left has taken and it says, if you can’t hurt the one who hurt you, hurt the one you’re with. So, it’s almost as if, instead of again, trying to build the largest coalition that we can, it’s almost as if we are acting out our powerlessness by calling other people out and being vindictive in this kind of way. What — what someone described as an accountability hazing, where it’s not about holding people accountable to bring them in with love, it’s about hazing them. And finally, that’s a symptom of what I call toxic activism. And toxic activism is when you transfer the pain that you’ve experienced onto other people inside the movement, because their guilt and their privilege makes them easy marks for your shadow side. And a toxic activist also sees the world in binary. Either you’re with us or against us. You think you’re an ally, or an oppressor. And again, that’s from someone who speaks as a reporter, who’s listened to stories both off the record and on the record, as I’ve literally taught the classics. And I’ve read everything from “War and Peace” to the Iliad to Gilgamesh to Tony Morrison’s. “Beloved.” I mean, real people are complicated, layered, and contradictory and full of nuance and shades, and gray. And lots of weird colors and shapes inside. And no — and as Walt Whitman said, we contain multitude. So, the idea of treating people as just an ally or just as an oppressor, that’s the mentality of a toxic activist. And I think right now, that the left, unfortunately has taken on a kind of a toxic left, not all but some segments of it, especially the more social media, prolific ones. And so, what I — what I again, think that is necessary now is to really ask the question, it’s like, look, is my approach building the left or is it shrinking it? Is it — is it creating a larger coalition? Or is it — is it kind of making people jump through purity hoops, so that they’re on, you know, so that — so that I can have power over them. And I really think that, you know, again, for — for those of us who are — fit some kind of minority box, or disability box or sexual minority box, that it’s easy then to take on the persona of the oppressed, whether, you know, even if we’ve had some kind of class privilege, or citizenship, or some kind of privilege, it’s easy to take on that persona, and browbeat people who we think have had more privilege than us, and to make them feel guilty, because then it becomes a form of reenacting a primal scene of pain. But now, instead of us being hurt, we hurt the one who hurt us, you know. And so, I just, I’m — I think I’m kind of done with that. And I think we have to kind of move beyond that, because there’s too much at stake to make the left into a therapy session, about politics or strategizing.

 

David:

Yeah, and what’s funny about politics, they’re so binary. Politics are binaries, like Democratic or Republican and it’s like, I don’t feel represented in any of that. Every situation is very unique. And honestly, I’ve never heard toxic activists, and I’m really vibe with that, because I’ve — I’ve been around some people where I’m like, whoa, we gotta — we gotta — we gotta slow it down over here. Okay, my song is, there’s something happening here. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

Oh, yeah!

 

David:

Ain’t exactly — Buffalo Springsteen. That’s — that’s my go to song when I think about positive shift. And that song came from the Kent State riots back in the early 70s, late 60s — something like that?

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah. And isn’t that the one where four students were shot by — by the state — I forgot the police or —

 

David:

No, the National Guard.

 

Nicholas Powers:

The National Guard.

 

David:

Shots — shot some students because of a protest. 

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah.

 

David:

But that’s my jam that I listen to when I’m like, oh.

 

Nicholas Powers:

It’s a good jam, man. 

 

David:

So, you’ve just exploded my brain. And I love it. And you’re just such a very knowledgeable man. And I really appreciate your time speaking on the podcast with us today. And before we go, do you just want to shout out like any social media or how like our audience can find you and get more information about you and your work?

 

Nicholas Powers:

Yeah. You can find me on Truthout.com. And you can find me at the Indypendent. I-N-D-Y-P-E-N-D-E-N-T dot org. So yeah — so we’re like — like Indiana Jones or something, I don’t know. It’s like we’re so independent, we’re independent of proper spelling. And then probably the two talks that showcase where I’m at with the psychedelics is the one by — at Horizons in 2017. And the other one is the Brooklyn Psychedelic Society on Psychedelic Socialism. Yeah, so there it is. 

 

David:

Beautiful. Well, thank you so much for speaking with us today and I really appreciate your time.

 

Thank you, David.

 

[MUSIC]

 

On behalf of the Naropa community, thank you for listening to Mindful U. The official podcast of Naropa University. Check us out at http://www.naropa.edu or follow us on social media for more updates.

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