Divine Awakenings: A Talk with Nikos Katsaounis about "Entheogen"
On its official website, the film Entheogen: Awakening the Divine Within is described as "a feature length documentary which invites the viewer to rediscover an enchanted cosmos in the modern world by awakening to the divine within. The film examines the re-emergence of archaic techniques of ecstacy in the modern world by weaving a synthesis of ecological and evolutionary awareness,electronic dance culture, and the current pharmacological re-evaluation of entheogenic compounds."
This Friday night, January 30th, at the Wild Project in New York, Reality Sandwich and Souldish will host a screening of the film. I recently interviewed the film's director/producer, Nikos Katsaounis about his project.
AE: Give us a sneak peak. What is the film about? What makes your film unique?
NK: Well Entheogen is a film that explores a variety of different themes that might superficially seem unrelated, however I feel there is something very profound that connects. It is about ancient techniques of inducing altered states of consciousness and then exploring the rebirth of these kinds of rituals in contemporary society.
Essentially the film is trying to draw a parallel between trance parties (underground global outdoor psy-trance parties) and ancient ecstatic dance rituals. What I find to be interesting is that while we were making the film four years ago, that connection was not widely accepted, and today it feels like it is almost common sense -- at least in the circles that I move in. It is hard for me to fully wrap my head around this, since I wonder if it reflects my own bias or if on a general scale society is coming to terms with our need for such collective rites of passage.
Entheogen explores the traditional use of psychoactive compounds as a means to expand and induce an altered state of consciousness, and then tries to compare it to various contemporary equivalents. In parallel, the film attempts to look into why such rituals have been used cross-culturally and throughout history.
The film was made on a very low budget, so it was essentially a collection of footage that my partners and I had gathered over a few years in our lives. In a way it is like a video collage that is trying to induce an altered state while simultaneously walking the viewer through some of the research around the subject matter. All these elements combined give the film a unique feeling, rendering it something of a misfit that defies the typical documentary genre. While we still have not found an official distributor, the film has been uploaded all over the internet and while traveling to festivals myself, I am often surprised at how many people have actually have seen it. It's kind of become a cult classic.
AE: What inspired you to create this film? Can you share a personal story or two that influenced your direction?
NK: I had had some very profound experiences at a young age dancing and a question that always arose after these very powerful nights was "why does it feel good to dance?" I mean, really, why does it feel good to tap your foot to the beat of a song or sway your body from side to side with the rhythm of a melody? I can understand why sex and eating feel good, but dance seemed, from a Darwinian perspective, purposeless, thus why should it be embedded with such pleasure? I had also felt that the western way of dealing with disease was somewhat one-sided and problematic. In 2001, this inspired me to travel to South America for a year, during which time I spent 6 weeks or so in the Amazon, where I had my first experiences with ayahuasca and my worldview was intensely expanded. I had majored in philosophy in college, studying eastern religions, but the shamanic experience was completely new and different and I connected with it on an intuitive level. There was something very truthful about it, I could not stop thinking about my experiences in the Amazon, and when I got back I set off to make a film about these experiences.
I had tons of footage from my travels and one day looking for a job on Craigslist, I saw a listing offering a gig interviewing Alex Grey. Alex had been one of my idols growing up and so I jumped at the chance to get the job. This is when I met my two partners Rod Mann and Kevin Kohley. They had been shooting a series of interviews with some of the most important figures within the psychoactive compound community but did not have any other footage. We were a perfect match, we had the pieces to each other's puzzle. Their hotel had canceled their reservation because of some boxing match, so they ended up crashing at my place. I showed them my work and before we knew it we were partners.
AE: Do you believe that humans can awaken the divine without entheogens? Is it realistic to say that meditating or yoga or contemplation can bring the same expansion of consciousness as say, Ayahuasca or Peyote or Iboga?
NK: I think it is. While entheogens have been crucial to our collective history as a means of achieving a deeper insight into the mystery of existence, it is only one of the many paths to altering one's frequency of thought. Very similar if not identical states of being can be induced through dancing, praying, yoga, meditation, chanting, holotropic breath work, and a wide variety of practices that have nothing to do with psychoactive substances. These processes are much more subtle, they require discipline and commitment, and their teachings do not reveal themselves quickly.
Today, due to the intensity of the world we live in, the speed and potency of our lives makes things like meditation even harder to practice as part of our daily routine. My belief is that the powerful entheogenic compounds are becoming more and more popular in modern western society because they are concentrated catalysts of change. Their potency gives them the power to jolt people out of their perspective, the experience itself becomes an awakening to a new possibility, and serves ultimately as a means to inspire people to live more meaningful life.
The ethos of such experiences is so opposite to western man's worldview, the sensibilities that are triggered while under the influence seem to speak to our deepest nature, to a part of ourselves that is going extinct. I believe a lot of people nowadays are feeling that loss, and these substances bring it all to the forefront again, making them ever so much more popular. While meditation and yoga can expand our consciousness, it seems like in a world with a multi-billion- dollar advertising industry, and infinite products and desires amplified to make us fall asleep, nature would need something as potent and powerful as these compounds to get our attention in these troubling times.
The problem of integrating these substances into our contemporary western lives is that we often are not sensitive enough to how sacred and alien these practices are, and disrespecting them can have severe consequences. These compounds can be dangerous and need to be respected and taken with humility.
Traditional psychoactive compounds like Peyote, San Pedro mushrooms, Ayahuasca, and Iboga have very ancient rituals attached to their ceremonial ingestion. A richly encoded mythology permeates the process and lots can be learned from the details and the particulars of the ceremony. However, these rituals are also very culture-specific and the nuances of the stories and songs are often hard to relate to if one is not native to the culture. This makes a lot of the teachings inaccessible to modern man, especially Western man, but I believe that it is the process itself that is encoded with the message and not the content of the songs.
In short, I believe we can be awakened by many different processes, but entheogens pack a powerful punch to jolt people into an awakened state. They serve as inspiring experiences that can make people interested in other experiences, like meditation, tai chi, and yoga, to name a few.
AE: What do you think causes people to fall asleep?
NK: We are constantly distracted from a very young age through socialization, in school, by our families, the state; we forget to think for ourselves. Bombarded as we are by heavily engineered messages that urge us to consume, to lust, to desire after things, we have been given very little time to ponder the big questions of existence, and have achieved very little happiness in return for our loyalty to the consumerist ideal.
We are distracted from our true selves, and we rarely spend the time that is required to get in touch with the subtler planes, and that's where waking up takes place. If our industrially-processed food comas are punctuated by long sessions in front of the television, all of our free time is consumed by qualitatively questionable content. Under this spell of mediocrity, slowly, our subconscious minds, our dreams are infiltrated by images and desires that don't have our best interest at heart. This causes us to numb our selves, we take our sensors and dull them.
Our cities are too loud, too smelly, too ugly to have our antennas stretched and fully alert. TV and bad food is our way of distracting ourselves from our misery, cheating our way out of feeling our depression. That is the saddest part in my opinion, because by not ever feeling the rock bottom, one never has the desire to bounce.
Vipasana ten-day silent retreats, for example, are part of the Buddhist tradition, and during the silent ten-day sit, one is exposed to a variety of meditation techniques while simultaneously listening to a series of teachings. Because all of the energy that one spends talking is now available for introspection and is thus focused inwards, a lot of self realization takes place, and one's senses are extended to the maximum. Sounds, smells, taste all work as if they were brand new and a deep appreciation for the simplest things is commonplace. Who has the time, discipline or interest nowadays to go do a Vipasana silent meditation retreat? Very few, in fact I would argue that most people actually find it quite strange and potentially damaging.
Entheogens, however, are kind of shortcuts to the same place, and while they by no means can substitute for the teachings or the experience of a ten-day silent meditation, they can serve as powerful inspirations and motivations to explore oneself on a deeper level.
AE: How do you know if someone is asleep? How do you know when you, yourself, are asleep?
NK: That's a very good question and it's very tricky to know when you are asleep. But it's not a black and white situation; I mean you will never find someone who is 100% asleep and another who is 100% awake. It's all shades of grey; some people are more conscious than others.
The process of expanding one's consciousness is essentially the meaning of life to me -- deepening one's connectedness and understanding of the world while figuring out how to walk that path so that our actions are a manifestation of an expanded consciousness.
I believe we attract people who are on a similar vibration frequency. I have noticed that when I am in phases of my life that are full of growth and positive change, I am usually surrounded by people who share my vision and with whom I have an intuitive connection. Our exchanges are inspiring manifestations of the changes that I am going through in my life. Similarly when I am in the darker phases of my life and things are not going that well, I often will notice that the people who I am hanging out with and the conversations that I am having are of a lower frequency, they are motivated by selfish interests and are usually strongly attached to my ego. The excitement derived from the interactions in my positive state are not connected to selfish egoic motives. They are genuine communions in which everyone's best interest is taken into account. So I guess it's a feeling that one gets when one is on or off the path.
AE: In a world where religion isn't easily going away, what role do entheogens play? How do you foresee religions like Christianity, for example, accepting entheogens into post-modern culture?
NK: Well this is an issue that has been a point of contention from the beginning of institutional religion, and Christianity especially. In the very early stages of Christianity, the vibe of the mysteries was very pagan. Roman animism had influenced the early Christian gatherings, making them much more vibrant and festive than they are today. Due to the lack of priests in these very early stages, the initiate would have a direct experience with the divine. Whether this would be through ecstatic dancing or chanting or whirling, the early Christians did not have someone else mediating between them and god, they were experiencing god within them during the unfolding of the mystery.
When the church was instituted and priests started serving as mediators, it was as if the common man was not pure enough to experience the divine presence of God within him/her, in fear that its beauty would corrupt us and our carnal desires would hedonistically distract us from the true essence and beauty of the divine. This was obviously a political move so as to over-emphasize the priests' importance and give meaning to their existence.
Entheogens are channels through which small trickles of that divine essence can connect us to it and we can feel the awe-someness of the world for short instances, enough to hopefully inspire us to be better people. Shouldn't that be the purpose of any religious ceremony? So I feel that it will be a hard fit even though in Brazil the Santo Daime is considered a sect of Christianity, I find it difficult for the two to dance with one another, primarily because the realms of shamanism and witchcraft have historically been categorized by the church as being heretical and blasphemous.
AE: How has your film been received so far? What have the responses been like?
NK: Our film has been received with immense enthusiasm within the psychedelic community and has a following of its own online and in the psy-trance circuit. It has been officially selected by several festivals and has won best documentary at two. We constantly find it being posted online and we often let it run for a little while to see the comments and the feedback but then we take it down since we have yet to find a distributor.
AE: What's coming next for you?
NK: I have been working on pilot for the past 6 months on a documentary series on violence and negative racial stereotyping in the media, I am waiting to see if we will be moving forward on that. In parallel I am also working on some personal storytelling in a multimedia format, of which I hopefully will have something to show in the next couple of months or so, Postmodern Times, our animated webisodes, have spawned a new feature animated documentary that my partner Joao Amorim is directing, so I will be working on that in some capacity.
In a completely different realm I am developing a social networking site that is centered around an audio engineering software. It will allow musicians to jam online with each other; it's in the end of the alpha stage and hopefully it will be good enough of an idea to move it to the Beta stage.
AE: How do you foresee the coming 2012 date playing out?
NK: What a fashionable question, it seems like everyone is talking about it these days, I kind of want to say that's sooo 2002 for me and snub the whole thing and say that I don't think anything will happen, but unfortunately I do. There are so many dramatic arcs in our collective global narrative that it would seem naïve to believe that we are not living in a time of global self-reflection and re-evaluation.
From the environment to the financial crisis to overpopulation and limited resources, it looks like we could very possibly be looking at the end of the world as we know it. I am hesitant to make predictions and articulate what is going to happen on December 21 2012, but I can feel the change happening as we speak. Overall, my personal interpretation about this shift is that the power of intention, intuition, and other esoteric processes of thought will start to have a greater impact on "reality." The realm of rigid rational thinking will start to give way to more a poetical one, this is why I think there has recently been so much interest in "new agy" philosophy.