the powers and perils of psychedelics
To see the world in a grain of sand And heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour. — William Blake
The morning after I turned 26, I downed a concoction of 2.5 grams of magic mushrooms brewed in tea with some lemon juice. What resulted over the next 6 hours was an experience so impactful, I can’t shake it. My core assumptions and sense of self were all on the cutting board as I stared deep into the psychedelic abyss.
In truth, I’m nervous about writing this. I worry about the social, legal, and reputational effects that can come from writing about “controversial” topics. I also struggle with sharing raw & personal experiences, especially when I haven’t “figured out” the answer yet. Maybe that’s why I always pepper my posts with quotes and citations.
But, has any meaningful thought ever come from splashing around in the shallows of the uncontroversial? Human knowledge is pushed forward by bold strides into the gray areas of epistemic uncertainty.
I want to keep it real. My experiences with psychedelics have been some of the most meaningful that I’ve ever had. Within the mushroom1 trip is the ability to feel connected to the vast depths of the universe, re-write your own narrative, and even undergo ego death.
However, decadent use of psychedelics rooted in pleasure-seeking is not what I’m talking about. Music, plant medicines, and ritual have been part of spiritual practices for millenia. With the right intention, a group setting like a music festival can be a transcendental dance, hand-in-hand with thousands of other humans united in their collective yearning for ecstasis. However, I fear that the majority of people in these environments are driven by escapism, wanting to tap into something bigger but lacking the spiritual lens to do so.
I think the key is to treat psychedelic use as a sacred ritual — imbued with reverence and intentionality. With respect for the magic in these substances, you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and start to appreciate the vast ocean of human experience right in front of you.
“Psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is for biology and medicine or the telescope is for astronomy.”
– Stan Grof (Czech psychiatrist who has guided thousands of LSD sessions)
The Other Side
It’s impossible to accurately portray the subjective experience2 of tripping because it’s very personal and varies for everyone. After the trip, your memories quickly decay and so do the lessons, unless you actively process and integrate what you’ve learned.
Aldous Huxley comes pretty close in The Doors of Perception, which details his first mescaline (peyote cactus) trip. With his remarkable gift for writing, he recalls a range of insights from the “purely aesthetic” to “sacramental visions”. Even so, he admits that his account falls short of capturing the significance of his actual experience.
“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain.
By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”
― Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception
While in the trenches, you understand the depth found in simplicity when corny phrases like “this too shall pass” finally mean something. Your interpretation of the world becomes a perceptual lens that’s as malleable as dough. You realize that you are merely an intelligent ape living in an allegorical cave, poking out to see that reality is nothing like you thought it was.
“You have to imagine a caveman transported into the middle of Manhattan. He sees buses, cell phones, skyscrapers, airplanes. Then zap him back to his cave. What does he say about the experience? ‘It was big, it was impressive, it was loud.’ He doesn’t have the vocabulary for ‘skyscraper,’ ‘elevator,’ ‘cell phone.’
Maybe he has an intuitive sense there was some sort of significance or order to the scene. But there are words we need that don’t yet exist. We’ve got five crayons when we need fifty thousand different shades.”
— Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind
I like to think that after taking psychedelics, we become kids3 again. Kids have minimal social conditioning and relate to the world with purity and awe. They see the world without a filter, and experience it through a lens of wonder and amazement with their focus squarely on the present moment.
As we get older, our brains become more “efficient” as adaptive patterns of neural activity get ingrained. Though this is useful for conserving time and energy, it confines us to a life of evolutionary determinism in which it becomes increasingly difficult to change ourselves.
What if the path we’re on isn’t right? I think the answer lies in figuring out how to regain this sense of wonder and relate to the world with fresh eyes.
Above all else, psychedelics add a significance vector4 to your life, as if you are walking through a world full of meaning and purpose rather than one that’s empty and arbitrary. Maybe this is why it’s so effective against treatment-resistant depression — life starts to mean something again and the normally depressed mind finds hope. Even an individual who’s not depressed but nonetheless stuck in locally optimal thought patterns can meaningfully grow from all of the data passing through.
I’ve also found immense value in using these substances with small, intimate, and intentional groups of people. I’ve become way closer with everybody that I’ve tripped with in the past. How can you not? You push past the superficial and see others as fellow flawed yet beautiful humans. Here’s a friend’s thoughts on tripping with romantic partners, which I thought was apt and insightful:
“Especially (in regards to getting close with those we’ve tripped with) our romantic partners! We move past the minutia, the ego, the human bodies. When I grew up going to church, I always heard people say that it was good to put Jesus before your spouse. I was confused!
Now I believe that when two partners can put spirit as their guiding light, that they can transcend these stupid human things we do and unite with their partner as two beams of wonderful light.”
For myself, the “message” or lesson that I get from psychedelics generally follows the same contour. It’s simple, yet profound at the same time. There are multiple ways to approach this truth, so here are a few perspectives that I’ve internalized:
Life is fundamentally about letting go of fear, being in the present moment with as much depth as possible, and making the most out of this strange and beautiful experience that we get to have.
We spend our lives chasing money, status, and other material things to quench the thirst inside of us thinking it’ll make us happy, when there is an ocean of fresh water right in front of us. This water comes in the form of time spent with our loved ones, getting lost in doing what we love, and the wonder found in pondering the mystery of life itself. Just drink the water.
Pursuit of spirituality and living in the moment to the exclusion of the material world entirely isn’t the right path either. Those who have learned to appreciate the power of the infinite ought to come back to Earth and do something useful with their elevated consciousness for the betterment of the world. This is what’s meant by giving in service of the divine.
Ultimately, our lives are what we make of them. We can literally author our own destiny, and every decision we make (conscious or otherwise) gets us closer to the person we eventually become.
If I had to boil it down to a simple statement, it would be… Be Present. Life is all around you. That’s it. That’s the secret to the universe.
Looking past all the compelling anecdotal data5 there are many promising benefits being studied clinically. Psychedelic medicine is experiencing a renaissance with regards to treating a whole host of modern psychological disorders including depression, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even anxiety around death.
There is, however, no such thing as a panacea. Psychedelics can do immense good in the right settings, but such powerful tools can also do great harm within the wrong context or with the wrong intentions.
The psychedelic journey is a genuinely destabilizing experience. Your understanding of reality and consciousness will never be the same. For those that aren’t ready for such an experience, aren’t in the right environment when taking it, or don’t have the right brain chemistry6, a trip can lead to irreparable harm.
Joscha Bach’s perspective on the downsides of psychedelics comes from the lens of artificial intelligence research. One of the main things to avoid when building AI systems is to prevent “overfitting” of certain patterns — when your model hugs too closely to its training data. A single psychedelic trip can be the most meaningful or significant experience of your life, so it’s easy to overfit offhand insights from your trip and extrapolate assumptions or assign disproportionate causality to patterns that aren’t grounded in reality.
This could be what happened with Timothy Leary in the 1960s. He had profoundly positive experiences with LSD, and started giving them to students at Harvard without regard for the consequences. Leary perceived the world as a psychedelic landscape and thought these substances were a panacea to bring forth utopia. Sadly, his actions only tarnished psychedelics in the eyes of the public and set back the medical progress on these substances for decades.
Due to this and many other pivotal factors (the summer of love, Vietnam war opposition, “tune in, drop out” culture, etc.) most psychedelics were classified as Schedule I substances (drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse) by the US federal government. It’s no doubt that the government saw the societally destabilizing powers of these substances. Mystical states tend to have such a powerful sense of authority that their effects extend long afterwards. This innate authority is so compelling that traditional structures of power (governments, religious dogma, corporations) pale in comparison.
Only now are we seeing these draconian policies reversed — just recently, San Francisco (my home) decriminalized plant-based psychedelics, acknowledging their relative safety and medicinal potential. I feel that over the coming years we’ll see many other places do the same.
Above all, I think the most pernicious and understated peril of psychedelics is what I like to call the phenomena of “unearned wisdom”. For some time, you understand things that normally take years of committed spiritual practice and philosophical study to properly integrate. The half-life of these insights is short and you struggle to integrate them into your life, especially if it’s your first time encountering this kind of knowledge.
I believe that the “truths” you encounter during psychedelic experiences are the same as those you can come to through a life of contemplation, reflection, and practice. When you come to these truths from rigorous practice rather than being shot towards them in a rocket, you appreciate and understand them, and can more readily apply them to your life.
This is why many (my younger self included) falsely think that the purpose of psychedelics is to get the raw sensory experience, beatific visions, and information downloads again and again in the hopes that it’ll eventually stick after tripping enough.
“I think the real test of psychedelics is what you do with them when you're not on them, what kind of culture you build, what kind of art, what kind of technologies...
What's lacking in the Western mind is the sense of connectivity and relatedness to the rest of life, the atmosphere, the ecosystem, the past, our children's future. If we were feeling those things we would not be practicing culture as we are.”
— Terrence McKenna
The truth is that you can use psychedelics as a tool to see what’s out there, but nothing will replace a regular practice of meditation, reflection, and contemplation. Be present with the mundane experience of your day-to-day life and you will find the answers you’re looking for.
"If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments like microscopes, telescopes and telephones.
The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen."
— Alan Watts
Thanks to Macc, Gonzi, and Weston for looking over drafts of this piece. ✌🏽
Mushrooms which, by the way, grow naturally on the ground and somehow don’t kill us but instead give us fantastical visions, insights, and sensory experiences for a few hours. The awe I feel when thinking about this will never leave me.
A fun (and quite accurate) depiction of the “come-up” portion of a psychedelic can be found here on PsychedSubstance’s YouTube channel.
Funnily enough, when you look at brain scans of adults on LSD, you find that their minds look very similar to the minds of babies. There are more connections being made, less compartmentalization, and parts of the brain that normally don’t communicate sing to each other.
I borrowed this apt language from Kim Stanley Robinson, whose work and lifestyle was deeply influenced by the psychedelic experiences of his youth.
Ava has an amazing piece which shares her experiences with psychedelics and the benefits she’s observed, including being no longer depressed, having less fear around writing, finding it easier to break bad habits, having healthier relationships, and feeling more self love.
Unfortunately for those genetically predisposed to schizophrenia, a psychedelic trip may trigger a psychotic break or otherwise bring out the latent disorder.
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