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Tripping Through Silicon Valley


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I CROUCHED OVER the bar at Gordon Biersch one recent afternoon and shared beers with a Western yogi of many years. We discussed entheogens, psychotropic substances and breathing—none of which I know how to do. Eventually he whipped out a vial of Salvia divinorum tincture that he had purchased from a website and then squirted one drop of the stuff underneath his tongue. Right there at the bar. He explained that this particular extract from a psychotropic plant from the Oaxaca region of Mexico is a bona fide legal hallucinogenic. He had never once consumed the extract in a public place, but decided the time was right since I had just given him the lowdown on probably the most interesting conference to hit downtown San Jose in recent years: Sacred Elixirs: Drug Plants in the History of Religions, which takes place in the Montgomery Theater over the weekend of Oct. 22 and 23.

The yogi in question is correct in that Salvia divinorum is completely legal. Google it if you wish—there's info everywhere. It's not a party drug like LSD or marijuana. It's something that shamans in Mexico have used in spiritual and/or healing rituals for a few thousand years now. Think self-reflection, meditation or inner peace. The substance is something this yogi implied you might want to ingest while lounging alone among the redwoods or in your millionaire friend's outdoor spa in the hills of Woodside. The yogi, 64, tells me stories of how Salvia makes you much more self-aware, and how it's a cheap ticket to a reality outside the shallow-breathing, three-dimensional lives most people unschooled in yoga lead. The "trip," he says, lasts only 10 to 15 minutes or so, unlike LSD. He calls the stuff "Sister Salvia."

The online user's guide for Salvia divinorum says it's for older, mature, more philosophically minded folks, and that it's not addictive whatsoever. The yogi hadn't known about the Sacred Elixirs conference, and instead of scribbling the website down on a cocktail napkin like I would have done, he whipped out a digital voice recorder and uttered a quick sound bite to remind himself.

In order to find out more about the Sacred Elixirs conference, I just had to hook up with the organizer, Welshman Mike Crowley, a former Silicon Valley software engineer who is currently working on a book called Secret Drugs of Buddhism. He actually footed the bill for most of the conference himself—there has never anywhere been an academic gathering solely devoted to the role of drugs in religion.

Crowley and I met at a downtown San Jose Starbucks and grabbed an outside table that had just been vacated by four policemen. He argued that scourges of fundamentalist kooks are using religion to stamp out drugs, but the reality of it all is that drugs have been an integral element of all faiths everywhere.

"There's a kind of knee-jerk reaction, an anti-drug message, and it's especially tied to religiosity," he explained. "And one assumes if you're religious, you're against drugs. Well, this is a gross distortion of the historical position. All religions seem to have a favorite drug. In Christianity it's wine. In Hinduism, Shiva devotees, for instance, take cannabis—or marijuana as it's called in this country—except it's drunk as kind of a milkshake."

The Sacred Elixirs conference will feature several renowned speakers. Alexander Schulgin, 81, is probably the foremost psychedelic chemist in the world. "He's discovered about 200 psychedelic drugs," Crowley explained. "And that's about 198 more than most other psychedelic chemists."

Ralph Metzner, one of the earliest LSD researchers, will also make an appearance. John Winslow will host a panel discussion called "What Was Soma?" that explores that sacred psychoactive something-or-other from the Rig Veda of ancient India. There will also be books, artwork, psychoactive plants and entheogenic elixirs available for purchase.

Coming back to Salvia divinorum, Crowley was adamant in not recommending it for beginners. "[It's] very, very potent and very, very strange," he said. "If you're going to do it, you need a sitter. Somebody who can sit there with you and make sure that you don't do anything dangerous. It's very unusual for people to actually freak out on it, but it's not unusual for people to try and walk through a door which they see is there but isn't there in reality."

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From the October 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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