Psychedelic Marine by Alex Seymour
As a former Royal Marine Commando and a psychedelic healing advocate, Alex Seymour stands with his feet in two ostensibly antithetical camps. His first-person narrative memoir, Psychedelic Marine (2016), is titled to foreground the profoundly unusual nature of this identity.
The collision of military and shamanic worldviews makes for an excitingly jarring read. From the book’s design, this polarity has clearly been seized upon by Park Street Press as its USP. It is also structurally reinforced by the separation of the subject matter, with Seymour’s experiences in the army and the Amazon neatly funneled into its two chronological parts.
In Part 1, ‘The Secret that Can’t be Told,’ Seymour tracks his progress through military service. The physically and emotionally grueling ordeals render him acutely aware of the nuts and bolts of life, forcing him to question the path he has been carving through it. Comprehensively setting the reader up for his subsequent psychedelic transformation, Seymour spends much of his narrative outlining the makeup of his psychological landscape prior to joining the army. This includes his inner-city upbringing and triptych of father figures; the absent, the stoic and the heavy-handed. He is adroit in apportioning praise and blame to each, as well as to the friends he makes along the way, neatly charting how their influences helped shape his ideals and mindsets.
During his final tour of duty in Afghanistan, Seymour makes a thorough job of earning his post-traumatic stripes. He is eminently qualified to undergo some sort of healing process by the time he hops on a plane to Peru to begin Part 2 of his adventure, ‘The Mythic Voyage.’ Much like his periods of military service, his ayahuasca ceremonies at La Kapok and Mythic Voyage healing centres are also physically and emotionally grueling.
“The war and ayahuasca made me face many of my own fears,” he writes. One of the most striking aspects of Psychedelic Marine is its surprising yield of parallels and points of comparison between the two parts of the text. Most crucially, the same yearning for meaning and purpose, and to cut through societal bullshit, draws him to both the army and to entheogens. In both contexts, he is driven to transcend the mundane, to be “tested.” Similarly, in both combat and cogitation, the zest with which he courts the experience of being in “survival mode,” catalyses the way he thrives.
The crucial difference is that, in the Amazon, each discombobulation leaves him increasingly comfortable in his own skin. Ever true to the overall formula of Psychedelic Marine, he re-evaluates his previous thoughts in the light of his latest experiences. However, there is a newly accepting, finalistic quality to many of his post-ayahuasca (re)calibrations. As he notes, “Once and for all, I just had to let that shit go.”
Notwithstanding the generically well-trodden nature of some of his paths to enlightenment, (which sit very much within the traditions of the current media vogue for publishing personal accounts of ayahuasca’s healing properties by Western urbanites), Seymour’s journey is succinct and relatable. He is clear-eyed rather than evangelical and, indeed, realistic to the point of being pessimistic in some passages. For instance, “the ceremony had been dreadful, so perhaps he was monkeying with the traditional recipe?”. In dealing with tangibly expressible changes of perspective and practical details, rather than in esoteric poetic niceties, he sets his account apart from many of its contemporaries. This book is an ideal present for a psychedelic skeptic!
The military precision with which Seymour delineates his healing process throughout Psychedelic Marine is appropriate and necessary, considering the fact that both of its key ingredients attract polarized opinions in their own right. Most of his readership will approach this text with strong preexisting approval of either his decision to go into military combat, or to seek psychedelic healing, and are likely to be initially baffled by the other choice. Due to his engaging openness at every juncture, I found myself surprised by the degree to which I began to sympathize, if not empathize, with his pre-army perceptions. Especially unexpectedly, that the answers to post-lunch-break malaise and a life suffused to the max with meaning and purpose can best ‒ or, at least, most efficiently ‒ be sought in responding to the siren’s call of military service.
Readers approaching Psychedelic Marine with leanings towards psychedelia will find a particular treat in the consecrating paratexts (tellingly absent from Part 1) that adorn the beginnings of many of Seymour’s adventures in the Amazon. Gems by Bill Hicks, such as “we’re supposed to keep evolving […] there’s another 90% of our brains that we have to illuminate,” or Terence McKenna’s, “nature loves courage,” ballast Seymour’s ultimate takeaway from his journeying: fear is only useful for survival in the context of military conflict. In normal civilian life, where it is unnecessary, it activates “me-mode” and the kinds of defensive thinking that leads not only to warfare, but ‒ in a vicious circle ‒ to the general public’s distrust of psychedelic exploration.
Much of this book’s potential for success in bending previously unsympathetic ears to psychedelic healing lies in Seymour’s carefully cultivated air of reliability, and his eminent likability as a narrator. He is just as likely to treat the reader to choice vignettes in the throes of a particularly challenging episode of shamanic soul-searching as he is during a fleeting moment of downtime, on patrol in Afghanistan. As such, Psychedelic Marine’s great potential is to appeal to readers outside the echo chambers of psychedelic culture and science.
The apparent paradox between psychedelic and militaristic points-of-view, however, will no doubt continue to raise concerns within some psychedelic quarters. As Erik Davis has noted about MDMA therapy , there is a “disturbing possibility” that it could turn a compound into an “affective grease for the military machine.” Healing the individual is, of course, vitally important, but larger societal views should not be lost in the background. Bearing this in mind, dismantling counter arguments as effortlessly as he would a rifle, Seymour’s greatest achievement in Psychedelic Marine is the watertight case he builds for recognizing the medicinal value of psychedelic experiences.
Psychedelic Marine: a Transformational Journey from Afghanistan to the Amazon (Park Street Press, 2016) is available as an e-book and in print.