Pitfalls Along the Psychedelic Path

Seventy-five years ago a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann swung open the doors of perception by intentionally ingesting 250 micrograms of LSD. Perhaps a harbinger of larger events to come, the subsequent hours after ingestion saw Hofmann experience the agony of a nightmarish hellscape which gradually unfolded into a delightful and fantastic exuberance in which the world ‘sparkled in a fresh light.’ The extremes of Dr. Hofmann’s experience are detailed in his book LSD: My Problem Child.

The continuum of Hofmann’s maiden voyage is symbolic of both the individual psychedelic experience as well as the societal response to LSD and similar compounds. Both individually and culturally, psychedelics offer the potential for indescribable terror as well as genuine spiritual insight. There is no shortage of personal accounts outlining the extremes of such experiences. And if 1960s are a psychedelic infused example of cultural and artistic awakening, then the subsequent War on Drugs would be the counter-effect to this arousal.

It now appears that the pendulum is swinging back towards insight. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime recently acknowledged that the global drug war has been a failure, Portugal has decriminalized all drugs, nine US states have legalized recreational cannabis use, and Canada is moving towards doing the same nation-wide this year. MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) is conducting astonishingly promising research on MDMA assisted psychotherapy for those suffering with PTSD. Psilocybin (the active compound in ‘magic mushrooms’) has been shown to have positive results in treating anxiety and depression in cancer patients, it has shown to be an effective treatment for smoking cessation, there is a chance that California could legalize the compound in the coming years, and recent research has shown that psilocybin mushrooms are the safest of all recreational drugs. Also, Dr. Hofmann would be glad to know that LSD research on humans has recently started again for the first time since the drug war kicked off in the early 1970s. This is by no means a comprehensive list of recent activity on this front but it does begin to tell the story of a cultural shift taking place. We need only to open our eyes and ears to realize that there is a renewed interest in meditation, spirituality, insight, and consciousness in the West and with this also comes a fresh look at psychedelics.

This may be a perfect case of confirmation bias but it seems as though psychedelics have once again entered mainstream conversation. There are certainly a number of popular YouTube channels and podcasts being consumed by millions which consistently (and entertainingly) discuss psychedelic use. Some of these include the podcasts of Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, Aubrey Marcus, and Duncan Trussell. Psychedelic use has also been discussed in depth at least a handful of times on the podcasts of Sam Harris and Russell Brand. The YouTube channel PsychedSubstance, which is dedicated to discussion and education around psychoactive compounds, has over one million subscribers. And perhaps most indicative of this cultural shift, Michael Pollan, author of five New York Times best sellers and one of the world’s 100 most influential people according to Time Magazine, just released his new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. This is big. It’s not difficult to see how these content creators are having an impact on the conversations and thoughts of young adults in the West given the sheer number of readers, listeners, and viewers they enjoy. Some degree of gratitude is owed to those who have been actively contributing to open and public conversation around psychedelics. Only now is there an opportunity to properly inform people of the effects and utility of substances that have been used to alter consciousness for millennia. New media is allowing this to occur on a mass scale.

While these developments are evidence of the pendulum swinging swiftly and confidently back toward reason there needs to be an ongoing effort to balance the conversation between both the good and the bad. So alluring are the tales of personal transformation and insight and so promising is the early research that there is real concern that intrepid psychonauts will forget that it is possible to end up wandering a very dark path on the psychedelic journey. Explorers of consciousness need to maintain this level of awareness if they are to voyage safely and purposefully.

“I felt like I was going insane … Then the grotesque rot/death feelings started to surface again. I was feeling like I was dying. My body was heavy and limp. My hands and arms looked pale and ghastly. I was in a state of freeze, and felt a fear that no human should ever feel. My surroundings looked like I was in some kind of death lodge with suffering all around me. The visuals turned to static and I started to feel like I had lost my mind. I kept getting up and going outside in attempt to ground myself and breathe in the air while wishing the night was over.”

– RQuetzali via Erowid

This is an excerpt from an account describing a rather unpleasant ayahuasca voyage that took place during a ceremony in November 2016. The writer goes on to state that a year later she was still experiencing regular panic attacks and severe anxiety and was eventually placed on antipsychotic medication. This is an extreme example and one could argue that such a reaction is likely only to occur in individuals with pre-existing mental disorders or, when it comes to ayahuasca, in those taking antidepressants. To be clear, the writer stated that she had no known psychological disorder and was not taking any medication prior to the ceremony. Yet anyone even vaguely familiar with psychedelics knows that it is always very much within the realm of possibility to have a bad trip and the reaction to such a trip is largely dependent on a user’s own psychological makeup and emotional well-being. It’s often said that ‘there are no bad trips’, meaning that even the most difficult trips will lead to new realizations and personal growth. However, while it is true that even difficult experiences can lead to insight, this view ignores the fact that there are many whose psychological machinery should not be tampered with. The truth of the matter is that although there is some control to be had through manipulation of set, setting, and dosage, users simply don’t know where they will end up after ingestion and the entire act could be, as Sam Harris put it, ‘like strapping oneself to a rocket without a guidance system’. There is no doubt that a rocket trip to hell could be tremendously unsettling. Though, what is rarely considered are the potential risks of landing in heaven.

“Psychedelics can open the gates of perception and flood you momentarily with information of genuine cosmic significance. That doesn’t mean you’re the sort of character … that can tolerate being filled with that kind of divine fluid, it might just break and crack you.”

– Jordan B. Peterson

The above statement should give pause to any aspiring psychonaut. Just as a monumentally difficult trip can lead to remarkable personal insight, it is possible that even a spiritually enlightening trip can lead to great struggle. Being filled with the ‘divine fluid’ of which Peterson speaks is often just the type of experience that psychedelic travelers are aiming for. Such experiences can often feel as though the mysteries of the cosmos have been fully and brilliantly revealed and many people report journeys so profound and so truly ineffable that they couldn’t be processed in a lifetime. While such experiences may be of indescribable beauty the question becomes a matter of how to integrate this into daily life. Attempts to do so can often be an exercise in futility as it is discovered that such unexpected wisdom is incompatible with normal day to day existence. In the statement above Peterson is echoing the sentiment of Carl Jung when he warned to ‘beware of unearned wisdom.’ There may be ‘genuine cosmic significance’ to these types of experiences but it’s debatable as to whether they have any true spiritual or practical value. Ultimately they may produce more suffering than enlightenment.

If the psychedelic path is to be taken at all then it must be taken with vigilance. The mind is not something to be frivolously toyed with in hopes of generating an entertaining or joyful experience that can be exported for good conversation. Using psychedelics for such purposes is at best, stupid, and at worst, dangerous. Having pointed out some of the potential risks it is important to remind readers that much research and anecdotal evidence suggests that psychedelics can offer the possibility of deep healing and spiritual growth. We do not at all encourage or endorse the use of psychedelics but if they are to be ingested it should be done with specific intention, in a safe and comfortable space (remember ‘set and setting’), with a trip sitter, and a reasonable dose should be measured out beforehand. Those with mental health issues should never ingest psychedelic substances. The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide by James Fadiman is an indispensable resource on the topic of safely exploring these substances.

The psychedelic experience, much like other practices on the spiritual path, offers the potential for both joy and sorrow but in perhaps a more amplified way. Just as the upside can be defined by profound and ineffable beauty, the downside can be wrought with unspeakable anguish and ugliness. Those walking the path need to be open to the possibility of both.

If you would like to share stories, good or bad, of experiences you or someone you know has had with psychedelics please reach out via the form on our Contact page!

(Photo via Simon Hadleigh-Sparks)