I have this hidden fantasy that some day, a drug will appear that will have a profound effect on humankind and it will make them stop causing wars and killing each other and gassing each other and destroying society. What if someone came up with a drug that was wildly popular, as popular as ecstasy, but had no side effects, and did not kill? It’s probably an impossible drug. But as a consequence of taking this drug, [people] suddenly realized that all humans are part of one organism, and that when you kill one person you are killing yourself, and that the earth is our lifeboat, and we are destroying it. What if a drug could produce an experience like that? I have fantasized that if it were possible to make a drug like that, I’d sure like to make it in my lab.
What’s a page about psychedelics doing on this website? In many ways, the taboos against speaking openly about psychedelics are even stronger than those that inhibit the frank discussion of sexuality. With few exceptions, there are no legal and accessible avenues for pursuing psychedelic experiences in the United States, and the penalties for breaking this game rule can be quite severe. I believe that these views on sex and psychedelics are both deeply related to what Alan Watts described as “the taboo against knowing who you are“—the social conventions that maintain the profoundly alienating illusion of defining ourselves as “isolated ‘egos’ inside bags of skin.”
I think many folks are carrying around a sort of unexamined yet pervasive existential dread: the lingering suspicion that underneath everything, existence might actually be terrible—a failed test or cruel joke by a wrathful or inattentive god; or perhaps simply meaningless and empty.* By extension, it would follow that perhaps it’s not such a good idea to look too closely at oneself, lest you find more of the same unworthiness. (“And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you“? Brr! Better to sweep that one under the mental rug, right?)
The thing is, I don’t know any reliable way to reason one’s way out of those ideas—the illusion of separateness, or the meaninglessness of existence. However, I’m fascinated by the potential of mindful psychedelic experiences to offer experiential ways of exploring those questions. The words that people often use to try and describe aspects of these states, such as “oneness,” “bliss,” and “oceanic boundlessness,” all run up against the problem of ineffability. That’s the limits of language; the idea that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao,” or that the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon, or that the map is not the territory. This footage from early (legal) LSD research shows one woman’s struggle to find words to fit the oneness and beauty she experiences:
I’m hopeful that safe and supported psychedelic experiences have the potential to make life more wonderful, both on an individual level and a societal level, if we decide to remove the risks that we’ve created through the dangerous environment of criminalization. Solid support for preparation and integration, along with better understanding and management of physical and mental health contraindications, could go a long way toward reducing the negative outcomes that are often portrayed in the media or experienced by users in suboptimal settings.
In fact, these supportive settings and practices do exist, and they’re currently being implemented, tested, and refined in a new wave of legal, government-approved clinical trials around the world. This resurgence of psychedelic research, from pharmacology and neurobiology to therapeutic methods, is opening up amazing leverage points for easing some of those ingrained taboos against looking too deeply into oneself or connecting too empathetically with others.
I’m very curious as to whether this research could open up an avenue for realizing this idea of the “wide identification of self.” If we change the way we think of ourselves, how might that affect the ways in which we relate to each other and our environment? Wide identification is a key tenet of deep ecology and transpersonal ecology philosophy, but it’s received criticism for being unrealistic. Sure, it sounds nice, but how would people achieve such an expansive state? I’m not the first to suggest that psychedelics could provide the missing mechanism. At Humboldt State, David Lawlor (2008) wrote a master’s thesis exploring this very topic: The prospect of psychedelic use as a tool in realizing a transpersonal ecology (PDF).
I hope that we, as a society, can find better ways to integrate psychedelic experiences and insights, freeing up the space to create and rediscover applications for growth and healing. Here are a few of the ways in which people are finding better games to play:
Restoring Empathy and Helping Heal PTSD
MAPS and other research groups are testing whether MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can help “heal the psychological and emotional damage caused by sexual assault, war, violent crime, and other traumas.”
Easing End-of-Life Anxiety
Breaking the Cycle of Addiction
Catalyzing Creative Problem-Solving
In 1966, researchers at the International Foundation for Advanced Study carried out a fascinating study on the use of LSD in helping engineers, architects, mathematicians, and other professionals who were stuck on a creative task. The results can be read in an online excerpt Stafford and Golightly’s book LSD: The Problem-Solving Psychedelic, and are also summarized in the Wikipedia article about the study.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins conducted a study in which they administered psilocybin to healthy adult volunteers, and found evidence for long-term, lasting personality change. Specifically, MacLean et al. (2011) showed that the personality trait of openness increased in volunteers and remained elevated more than one year after taking psilocybin. Here’s a link to the study, which you can also download as a PDF or hear discussed in a podcast.
The culture I grew up in has a profound lack of meaningful and healthy rituals to mark significant life transitions. MAPS has a variety of resources related to the Rites of Passage project, a source of information to support discussions about the use of psychedelics by adolescents and young adults.
The beauty of psychedelics is that we don’t have psychedelic experiences; we have experiences of ourselves catalyzed by psychedelics.
–Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS (source)
Psychedelics and Skepticism
[I]n my philosophy there is no difference between the physical and the spiritual. These are absolutely out-of-date catagories. It’s all process; it isn’t ‘stuff’ on the one hand and ‘form’ on the other. It’s just pattern—life is pattern. It is a dance of energy.
And so I will never invoke spooky knowledge.
That is, that I’ve had a private revelation or that I have sensory vibrations going on a plane which you don’t have. Everything is standing right out in the open, it’s just a question of how you look at it. […]
And when you find that out, you laugh yourself silly. That’s the great discovery.
To Believe or Not to Believe
The Teafaerie has an excellent article called “To Believe or Not to Believe,” which details her thoughts on interpreting “entity encounters” in psychedelic experiences:
The measure of a metaphor lies exclusively in its power to model a situation in such a way as to most frequently provoke the most appropriate response to stimulus. Period.
If your tobacco addiction presents to you as a demon, and you choose to deal with it that way, awesome.
For some people that’s a good lens to use. For others it might be better to stick with the chemical feedback loop model. Maybe it’s just different ways of seeing and saying the same thing. […]
I think I got lucky, in a way, having lost my religion as a little kid. My touchstone images have always been taken out of mythic movies and psychedelic science fiction, so I’m not prone to taking this stuff too literally. If you’re Catholic, and the Virgin Mary appears to you in an ayahuasca trip, you may be susceptible to believing that the Holy Virgin herself in fact paid you a visitation.
When Yoda appears to me, I know damned good and well it’s not really Yoda, because the real Yoda is a muppet.
Research and Resources
- MAPS: the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies
- Erowid: Documenting the Complex Relationship between Humans and Psychoactives
- Heffter Research Institute: Research at the Frontiers of the Mind
- Reset.Me: News and personal stories about psychedelic therapy
- The Secret Chief Revealed, by Myron Stolaroff (PDF, html)
- The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, by James Fadiman
- Psychedelic Information Theory, by James Kent (PDF, html)
- MAPS.org also has a collection of free ebooks on psychedelics!
- Teatime – Psychedelic Musings from the Center of the Universe
*Now, existence might actually be, in a way, empty—but that doesn’t mean we can’t co-create meaning in a universe from nothing!