The Island of the Lotus Eaters
A journey into an aspect of the Worldwide Counter Culture that is the modern day manifestation of a context described in a well known story from Classical Greek Mythology; which exposes the real and hidden meaning behind the Lotus Eaters.
So what is the Island of the Lotus Eaters? And who are the Lotus Eaters? The Lotus eaters are from the classical greek myth called Odysseus, also known as Ulysses. Probably the best known myth in the Western world, it describes the journey of the hero Odysseus, on his return from the Trojan war back to Greece. Along the way he and his crew encounter all sorts of strange beasts and scenarios. Some of the better known adversaries that Odysseus encounters will be familiar to most readers, for instance the Cyclops and the Sirens. Perhaps a slightly less well known chapter in the myth of Odysseus is the visit to the land or island of the Lotus eaters. This is one of the first stopping off points of the voyage after leaving Troy. On arriving at the island Odysseus sends some of his sailors to investigate the place. They find a land where the inhabitants are fond of ingesting a plant called the Lotus. The result of eating this strange plant is that the lotus eaters are put into a kind of sleepy stupor. When Odysseus's sailors eat the Lotus then they too succumb to the plants power and fall into a deep sleep. Unable to awaken themselves, they are trapped on the island until Odysseus comes to their rescue. And so free from the hold of the lotus plant, they all set sail for the next destination and leave the Lotus eaters behind in their terminal slumbers.
What does this all mean? The puzzle is clarified when we understand mythology as spiritual allegory. That is, myths far from being fantastical nonsense stories for children, are rather the symbolic representation of the distilled spiritual and mystical wisdom of various peoples and entire civilizations. Seen in this light, the story of the Lotus eaters becomes a reference to a recurring phenomenon found in early and primitive religion. That is, the use of certain plants and substances have often found their way into the religious rituals and ceremonies of the World's religions early on in their initial development and evolution. So for instance we have Soma described in the Bhaghavad Gita and other ancient Indian holy texts; Huoma used in pre-Zoroastrian Persia and the enigmatic Manna of the Bible, the food that fell from heaven. Also staying in antiquity we find the mysterious Kykeon, which was ingested in the sacred rituals of the Greek mysteries and also the blue lotus or lily of the Nile which was used by ancient Egyptian high priests. Incidentally, this blue lotus may have been identical with or closely related to the lotus that is referenced in the story of the lotus eaters. Finally in one of the earliest myths and also the oldest recorded story known to man, that is the tale of Gilgamesh, we also find a reference to some psychedelic plant.
What we're seeing here is the description of, or allusion to the ingestion of plant extracts or perhaps fungaloid preparations, in order to facilitate mystical states. This is a subject which is covered more in depth in another section of this website called 'Psychedelia past and present', whereas this current section is of a more biographical nature. Anyway, this is an extremely controversial subject matter and there has always been and always will be debate regarding the validity of any spiritual or religious experience facilitated by the ingestion of psychoactive substances. For the purpose of the current discussion we'll assume that indeed there are many doors to the eternal and that one of them involves the use of these psychedelic agents. This is the view of the Author, and is derived from having full blown mystical experiences of being God or being 'One with the Universe', both precipitated by 'natural' processes and also through the use of psychedelic substances. A more systematic discussion of the authenticity of the psychedelic experience will be left for another time and place. This whole section describes my own visit to the real land of the Lotus eaters as manifest in present times. For a while I passed through this strange country, a world in itself within the World at large, I met the lotus eaters and I ate a lot of 'lotus', in its many varieties. Here is what happened...
Pictured above is the fabled blue lotus. It was used by the ancient Egyptian high priests, its petals were scattered on the tomb of Tutenkamen and was much featured in the art of ancient Egypt. The blue lotus of the Nile may well be the same lotus variety that is featured in the story of the lotus eaters found in the myth of Odysseus. Special preparations derived from the root of the blue lotus (pictured to the right) may possess potent psychedelic properties if ingested at an adequate dose. In smaller doses the plant was also used by the ancient Egyptians as an aphrodisiac, in much the same way that LSD is sometimes used. The Lotus plant may also have been the key ingredient in the 'Soma' concoction mentioned in premiere Hindu Holy texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Rig Veda.
I found myself drifting in this world, unemployed, lost and lonely. I was living in London where I had been studying, having finished University several years earlier. I went to the Far East for a bit, soon after I finished my studies, then came back to London in the Spring of 1992, after having a troubled period while over there. On returning to the UK I discovered that the economic situation was really bad and I wasn't able to find a proper job. So I fell into a lifestyle of living off government payments, living in the seedier areas of London and exploring modern life's darker underbelly. Also during this time, I continued to pursue my passion for learning and spent a great deal of time working on the long term goal that I had set myself as a teenager. This was the aim to understand how the brain and mind worked. Also I desired greatly to use this knowledge to create Artificial Intelligence. At this time my life was more of a technological and scientific odyssey rather than a mystical or spiritual one. I dreamed that one day I would gain recognition for my ideas and theories about how the brain worked. It was also always in the back of my mind to commercialize my ideas. I had grand plans to one day go to silicon valley and start a software company. Around this time I would avidly read books about how the microcomputer revolution happened and books about the work going on in hi-tech research institutes around the world. It made me feel closer to a world I yearned to be a part of but was very distant from, in my circumstances at that time. I also read the biographies of people like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates and found them inspiring and instructive. So it was with this attitude and mind set that I first entered the land of the lotus eaters.
My first exposure to psychedelic drugs happened while I was living in a squat in Turnpike lane which is in North London. I was living with beggars, drop outs and various deviants. Though in that scene the most common substances of abuse were heroin, amphetamine, cannabis and special brew, one would also come across the drug LSD. My first experience with LSD happened in October 1992, it was an utterly strange and powerful experience but hardly spiritual or transcendent. I recall now that the drug was used quite recreationally. It was something to do when you were broke and bored. The colours would become brighter, there were severe alterations of visual and auditory perception. Also ones sense of humour was magnified tremendously and I remember times when I would laugh so hard, vigorously and at length with such merriment, that the next day the bones in my chest literally hurt. But again none of these experiences were really mystical at all. Looking back on this time, I realize now, with the benefit of experience and better knowledge, that the quality and dosages of the psychedelic substances I was ingesting was rather low. At a guess, I would have only been using a fraction of the dose required to produce any sort of transcendent experience. However I do recall that around this time I did sink into intense depressive episodes accompanied by scorching headaches which did precipitate borderline mystical states. It may or may not have been the case that perhaps the relatively small dosages of LSD, I would consume from time to time during this period, were a factor in their elicitation. Anyway, it was only after leaving the squat that my real investigations into the world of psychedelia and the land of the lotus eaters would begin. I discovered the world of psychedelic rave culture.
Even before my time spent in the squat I already had a certain fascination for the drug culture. This probably derived from certain books I'd read such as the novel ' Scanner Darkly' by Philip.K.Dick; certain TV programmes I'd watched in my teens such as a documentary on LSD that was shown by the BBC in the late 80s; And certain kinds of psychedelic music from the 60s that I was into, produced by bands such as the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. Also my keen interest in the brain and neuroscience definitely helped to predispose me to becoming curious about psychoactive drugs. It's impossible to spend so much time reading about neurochemistry and brain receptors, without ever wondering what would be the affect of manipulating their normal action. So it was with this general mind set that I gravitated towards London's druggy hard trance club scene. It was through a series of chance meetings that I would be introduced into London's psychedelic rave scene of the early and mid nineties. It is really this crowd I would call the modern day 'lotus eaters'. Alternatively they might also be called the modern Soma drinkers or perhaps the new age manna munchers. But what characterized a lot of them was their access to and inclination to ingest high dosages of psychedelic compounds, which would sometimes produce full on mystical states. Starting from around the Summer of 1993, I would be involved with this scene, on an on and off basis, until the Spring of 1998. It really gave me a chance to explore this rather deviant avenue of the mystical quest. I used the time to systematically experiment with psychedelic drugs and to see what I could learn from them. The sort of substances I used were drugs like LSD, DMT, 2CB, Ketamine and Ecstasy. Also there would be occasional use of various types of psychedelic mushroom and Cactus. The actual full scale mystical experiences obtained probably number something over a dozen or so. Many of these are of a fragmentary nature and just about all of these are difficult to depict visually of describe in words. However in the future I will be examining these experiences at length and elaborating on their meaning in some detail. What follows is a summary of key episodes and phases I went through in the land of the lotus eaters in roughly chronological order.
During my initial explorations in the land of the lotus eaters I would go to the club night Megatripolis that started in the Summer of 1993. I remember going to the first few that were held in the Marquee music venue on London's Charing cross road. As a student I would often go to see rock bands play there, so I felt quite at home. Now at the psychedelic club night Megatripolis I seemed to be meeting a lot of people with the same interests and outlook as myself. There were a lot of people involved in the arts, media and also technology. There would always be a significant contingent of old hippies from the sixties or early seventies and also the children of the children of Woodstock. Also of course a lot of students would show up and to some extent the kind of people I was living with in the squat scene. Anyway, it was a pretty eclectic mix of people.
I hung around this scene for a couple of months but would then do other things for about a year or so without very much involvement in the land of psychedelia. My attention shifted completely to other things for a while. My interest in computers, brain science and artificial intelligence returned. Also the influence of my girlfriend at that time tended to pull me away from deviant things. However after a few fateful twists and turns in my life, I found myself thrown back into the island of the lotus eaters, and here I would be properly stranded for about 2 years after that. It was through a combination of loneliness, curiosity and liking for the music related to the psychedelic culture, that inexorably and irresistibly I was drawn back towards the land of the lotus eaters. If psychedelic trance music was the siren song that drew me close then it was the drug ecstasy which acted as the bait and hook, which would bind and keep me in this druggy scene.
And so it was. From initially starting off by going to psychedelic club nights like Megatripolis, Return to the Source, Club Alien and Escape from Samsara, I progressed to helping to organize the parties. During this time, in and around 1995, I was living in the Farringdon area in London, which positioned me perfectly for going to any and every psychedelic event in London. My place was central and so conveniently located next to all the most useful transport links. Also around this time a new club called the Parallel Youniversity opened in a large warehouse style club called Bagleys in Kings Cross, which was a short walk from where I lived. It was started by Fraser Clark the same person who first created the Megatripolis event that was my first introduction to the scene. A sort of Johnny Apple seed of psychedelic counter culture, this interesting, colourful and charismatic character acted as the Timothy Leary of London's psychedelic crowd. Most of London psychedelic partying scene from the early 90s to the present emerged directly from events that he'd organized. Including club nights such as Return the the Source, Club Alien, Escape from Samsara, Synergy SE1 parties and Planet Angel. Anyway, this club night started in the Summer of 1995 and living so close, I went every week. It was partly as a result of this that I became totally immersed in the world of psychedelia. Initially I volunteered to help with the setting up of the club event, mainly in order to get in for free. So I would show up a little early a do a little work. This was quite enjoyable and was a good way to meet the people involved. Anyway, I progressed over the Winter of 1995 and 1996, to taking control of the booking of DJs and selection of music for the club. This put me in a good position to meet a lot of people and this I did with much interest and enthusiasm. So during this time I was able to get to know the strange and non conformist denizens of this druggy counter culture. Also I happened to be in the perfect context and social milieu for the systematic exploration of psychedelic drugs. And this I did for a couple of years, on and off, mostly on.
My life around this time was very strange. I would go out to psychedelic clubs Thursday, Friday and Saturday every week, for months on end and sometimes also going out on Sundays as well. It was a very social time and I got to meet a lot of interesting people. I would typically go to bed at around 7 or 8am in the morning, sometimes later, and then wake up in the late afternoon or early evening. At one point in the Winter of 95/96 I was jolted by the realization that I saw some daylight, having not experienced it for weeks. It was a completely aberrant lifestyle. I existed completely outside of the mainstream of society. The only people who I spent my time with were the loose collection of odd balls, strays and drop outs that would congregate regularly in psychedelic night clubs. My interest in computers and science was very neglected during this time. However I did maintain a keen interest in brain chemistry. Indeed I did spend a lot of the time thinking about my own brain chemistry for my life was completely centred around acquiring, taking and recovering from taking psychedelic drugs. All the rest of my time was spent hanging around night clubs a lot and socializing with psychedelic weirdos, like the sort that I myself had become. I recall that I did get into a lot of discussions about drugs with the people I knew, it was all part of the culture. Also I remember that I would spend a lot of time thinking about philosophical and religious questions.
This pattern of behavior continued right through 1996 with a break in the Spring of that year when I stopped taking drugs for a while and spent more time in relationships. But then a very destructive pattern of drug abuse started in the beginning of the Summer around late July which lasted right through to the end of the year. Looking back on it now, I call this my travel down the road of excess. I was taking far too much ecstasy and my life really got into a bad way. I did gain some interesting insights during this period but mainly it was a time of self destructive hedonism. However this run of reckless behavior culminated in a state of mind which enabled me to see some things I hadn't been able to previously. It was as if I went through a process of dramatic mental alteration brought about by a pattern of repeated drug abuse and bodily neglect. So I paid a personal cost in terms of physical and mental deterioration for the way I lived. However something of value was obtained at the end of this road. Now in retrospect, even though I wouldn't have planned out this course that my life had taken, I can see now that there was a prize at the end which I definitely consider to be worth the cost.
What was this prize? Well, what happened was that starting from just before the Christmas of 1996, a door in my mind seemed to open, and out of that door came thoughts, ideas and visions that I believe came from transcendent realms. This state of affairs lasted for a few months or so, but gradually I slowly returned back to normal and this door became closed again. In retrospect I can see now that this time of my life was a valuable one, but it was a horrible phase whilst I was going through it. Even though it was great that I was constantly thinking about spiritual and metaphysical questions, my mind would also be inordinately preoccupied with morbid and hypochondriacal thoughts. Also my life was in a pretty pathetic state. I had moved out of my place in Farringdon and was now living with friends staying in their flat in Muswell Hill, North London, living out of a camping backpack and sleeping on the floor in the corner of their living room. I can't believe now how I could have lived like that but will always be eternally grateful to my friends for providing me with a place to live when I really had nowhere to go. My hedonism, decadence and excessive behavior had left me almost totally dysfunctional for a while.
By this time in the late Winter and early Spring of 1997 I was starting to move away a little from the land of the lotus eaters. I started to feel that I had really taken enough drugs and was becoming increasingly wary of their detrimental effects. Also I was probably getting diminishing returns in terms of new experiences and insights. Also their hedonistic dimension started to have less and less of a pull on me. I was still heavily tied in socially with the scene and so would still go to psychedelic parties but only about several times a month, a big change from the previous pattern of 2 or 3 times a week. As my drug taking diminished so my mental fitness and concentration started to return. I started to read a lot of books about religion, mysticism, philosophy and the relationship between science and spirituality. But then something happened in the Spring of 1997 in early May. I learned that one of my closest friends that I knew in the psychedelic scene had died from drug taking.
And so one of my closest friends was dead at age 29 from a heart attack as a result of having an excessive and lethal combination of drugs in his system. I was devastated and the news really shook me to the core. We had spent a lot of time together going to clubs and generally hanging out. We
also talked a lot together about life in general and about religious and philosophical matters, so his demise and the circumstances around his death came as a real blow. It also forced me to think hard about my own situation and all this put me into a profoundly depressed state. It was definitely one of the most wrenching times of my life, exacerbated by the fact that my mental state at that time was still quite delicate from the chronic pattern of drug abuse I had been indulging in. It was this process of pain that helped me to wake up from the slumber that I had been in, the sleep of the lotus eaters. Also it was this mental and emotional turbulence which gave me the escape velocity to take charge of my life and leave the land of the lotus eaters. It was at around the Summer Solstice that, in my mind, I finally made the break. My entire outlook and mental state seemed to change rather dramatically. It was a powerful point of transition, my life was being steered towards a totally different course.
After the death of my friend and my decision to stop taking drugs, the rest of the year from the Summer Solstice onwards was spent productively. I took on part time work as a gardener's assistant and this was a very healing thing for me to have been doing at this point. I remember I was jogging a lot all around Highgate, in North London, where I was living at the time. Also I read voraciously finishing at least two or three decent sized books a week. Mainly I was reading books about science, religion and philosophy but also I read a wide variety of periodicals as well. I recall that around this time I was thinking a lot about spiritual and metaphysical matters. It was a relative halcyon period of my life but at the same time there was a sense of unease. At the back of my mind there was always the troubling thought that I had jeopardized my long term aims through the senseless way that I had lived over the past few years. There was a feeling that I had wasted valuable time and that it was necessary for me to play catch up. Anyway, this definitely acted as a kind of spur, as I really got down to work in the latter part of 1997.
So now my life was drug free and I no longer had very much in common with most of the people that I had spent the past few years hanging out with. My life went through a total re-orientation and I was living a very different existence from my previous one in the land of the lotus eaters. However something would happen which would take me right back to the island of the lotus eaters, to allow me to have another look at this world but from a totally different perspective. During the late Summer of 1997 I was asked to do a spot of live guitar work for a psychedelic trance act called Cosmosis at a Club called the Fridge in Brixton, London. This club also happened to be one of the main hang outs during my psychedelic phase and during this time I was there practically every week, even twice a week sometimes. It felt strange to be back, the place no longer had the same meaning for me that it did in the past. But still I had a good time, the beer and cokes that I drank were nothing compared to my psychoactive intake of past visits. Also I was being paid to be there and I did quite enjoy being on stage and the attention of the audience.
This first participation with the world of psychedelic trance dance music was followed by more involvement a few months later when I was asked to accompany the same act Cosmosis on a world tour to help promote their second album. This phase of my life would take me right up to the Summer of the following year. And during this period I got the chance to see and get to know better the world psychedelic scene. It was a funny position to be in as I was, in a sense, totally on the inside of the scene, but at the same time I was also something of an outsider. Though I had and still have a lot of liking and affinity with a lot of the people who are a part of the world psychedelic community, I can also see the inherent limitations of using psychedelic drugs as a means to facilitate mystic states. It was a funny time of my life and a strange irony. A year previously this would have seemed an ideal situation. I was totally immersed in the land of psychedelia and had the opportunity through my work as a musician to go to psychedelic parties all over the World. However in my mind I had already left the land of the lotus eaters. Throughout all this period it really felt as if I was only really passing through.
I stayed on in the world of psychedelic trance music until the Summer of 1998. Shortly after my time with the band finished my life entered into a time of preparation and incubation. I rediscovered my long time obsession with the brain and how the human mind worked. But now together with this interest in things neuroscientific and psychological, I also started to combine a deep interest in the religious and philosophical. So after I left the island of the lotus eaters, my odyssey continued. I become something of a loner, I read and thought a lot. I suppose the years immediately following my odyssey through the land of the lotus eaters were probably a phase of recovery and recuperation. I look back on my time spent with the lotus eaters with a sense of longing, for it was fun, but also with a sense of sadness because it was accompanied by tragedy and loss. Anyway, I have no regrets. I learned a lot and the realm of the lotus is probably an indispensable part of the spiritual and mystical landscape.
However the moral to the story is this. In the same way that Odysseus' sailors became trapped on the Island of the lotus eaters, once they had partaken of its fruits, so it is that the spiritual aspirant or mystical quester may find his or her journey halted by the use of psychedelic drugs. In fact the continued and repeated use of these powerful substances may, in a manner similar to the effects of the mythical Lotus, cause the adventurer to fall into a chronic stupor and even cause some people to totally lose their minds. With a bit of bad luck and without Odysseus to rescue you, then experimentation with psychedelic drugs can mean it's game over and the end of the line. I guess I was lucky. It took the death of a close friend to give me the impetus to leave the Island of the lotus eaters and carry on my journey, but that's another story.
Here are some fliers which were used to promote some of the psychedelic parties that happened in the mid to late nineties. The parties themselves could sometimes be a real mystery rite in itself. The club night Parallel University was a weekly event to which I went often. Eventually I became part of the crew, helping to promote the club and later taking over the booking of DJs for the main dance floor.