There’s heavy stigma on psychedelic/hallucinogenic substances. I have little faith that this post will reverse the stigma (certainly not on a cultural level), and like other Live Fluently topics, I approach merely as a humble devil’s advocate. I write about what I’m learning and what I like to talk about. This topic is no exception. If I smoked cigars, this is where I’d recline in my chair and light up.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for any kind of drugs, nor suggesting you give them a try. Based on my own experiences and research, of course, I have many opinions on this subject. Rather than pushing or presenting them for everybody else to change their minds, I’ll instead share some points that have changed my mind.
Many discussions of psychedelics begin with its more recent history, Aldous Huxley’s studies that birthed the infamous “Bicycle Day” and his influential work The Doors of Perception. Then there are the biographies of the controversial Harvard psychologists Dr. Timothy Leary and Ram Dass. The mention of psychedelics usually sparks images of the glorified 1960s experimentation and the concept of free love. Associations include Woodstock, hippies, and vibrant cartoon flowers morphing like a trippy kaleidoscope. How psychedelics are regarded today is pretty reliant upon the movement in the 60s, so it becomes almost obligatory to acknowledge it. This is the most brief and condensed version of this topic I could write!
A problem with psychedelics is misconceptions. People talk about the drug’s unpredictable quality and deem them dangerous because of so little known about them. There is so little known about them because it’s been very difficult to fund research on it, to have the opportunity to learn more because of that cultural rejection. A vicious cycle feeding itself! Much of we know about psychedelics had to come from “counter-culture” and a lot of credibility lies in personal, recreational experimentation (the times in youth that leave people with wild stories of their “bad” or “good” trips). This is not to say we have nothing to build on or that it has not been built on in academia and formal research settings already. I’m saying, a lot of ground-breaking studies that provide deeper insight into psychedelics are seldom well-known. Its complicated baggage holds it taboo to the mainstream.
A root of this problem is “good vs. bad” drugs. Dr. Andrew Weil, an expert in the pharmacological field has conducted extensive research on various drugs, their effects, and how they fit into cultural climates. He debunks the idea that there are “good” and “bad” drugs in general because the experience of their effects relies on both the individual who takes them and the context in which they are taken. We may assume that the pharmaceutical drugs prescribed to us are “good” and the ones found in the street market are “bad.” I won’t outline a list of similarities and differences between these and why “good” and “bad” is relative. I will say that the designated labels could easily be switched, and I can feel my repulsion to the extensive side effects and money-driven business side of “approved” drugs leaking out (whoop there it is). Rather than bash one thing to lift another, and mourn over the double standards, I’ll stick to my point. It is not the drug itself that is “bad” or “good” but how it is used. Drugs seem to make us feel temporarily different from our typical functioning state, but the experience is all in the mind. Stay with me, I realize that statement sounds like the epiphany of a stoner. Set and setting are responsible for a majority of the effects we feel induced from drugs. One study talks about some American soldiers using heroin in Vietnam to combat their boredom and returning from war without an addition to heroin. No boredom, no desire for it. Most over-doses of drugs occur because the user adheres to their high tolerance in different settings. A new setting makes a new experience. I can attest to this when drinking alcohol. In the comfort of my home I can drink many glasses of wine before I notice any effects of intoxication because I’m accustomed to it in a particular place. Even different friends in my home can effect how quickly I feel intoxicated or highlight differences in experiences from the same amount of alcohol. The placebo effect could also begin to address the power of our beliefs enhancing the effects of drugs. If someone, particularly someone whose opinion you value, gives you a pill for a headache, your expectation that the pill will treat your headache might be more effective than the pill itself. If you’re handed a tab of LSD and you have in your mindset “uh oh what if something terrible happens” or “I’ve heard you can have a bad trip and it’s going to happen to me!” then this possibility is more likely to be confirmed in the experience. “Bad trips” can happen to anyone, but it’s because the drug is either uncovering a pre-existing condition (i.e. the nervousness prior to intake you may or may not be aware of) or because the sometimes overwhelming feeling of experiencing something different or surrendering to a new, unknown state can be scary. It doesn’t have to be scary! This is another reason why it’s crucial to be in the right setting for you individually, ideally among people you know well in a safe space. In college, there was always someone we knew comfortably who would not be participating that we could call on to be the “spirit guide” if we needed them. The person would reassure someone in distress of their safety and serve as the grounding presence. Often though, once everyone was solid that everything was all okay and leaned into the sense of wonderment that comes from a totally new way of seeing and feeling, that’s when true bliss and magic happen. Kind of a metaphorical life wisdom, no?
Different drugs are also viewed very differently in different cultures. Many hallucinogens have been embedded in cultures as plant medicine since early human history while alcohol and tobacco products, common and accepted in Western culture, can easily be seen as more destructive and addictive. Ayahuasca, a plant medicine of the Andean and Amazonian regions of South America, is one of many hallucinogenics with purpose (coming soon!). What happens when we open ourselves to extraordinary experiences? What might we learn from the properties of plants? From the experiences we create?
Contrary to popular belief, psychedelic substances are not addictive. Even a life-changing, amazing experience induced by psychedelics does not lead to cravings or intense desire to attain the experience again. It’s magic! No, but actually the experience often leaves people with a greater appreciation for life, or otherwise with the desire to make necessary changes to improve their life. Reports in studies and among my social circles indicate the deeper sense of connection to all things the experience gives. These kinds of effects have been helpful in alleviating anxiety and depression symptoms. By reducing stress, psychedelic substances have the ability to essentially prevent the onset of diseases that otherwise capitalize on bodies with compromised immune systems from being in a perpetual state of defense. For those who might feel depressive symptoms in the days following ingestion of an MDMA dose (the pure form of ecstasy), it is the body’s way of restoring homeostasis by countering the common euphoric state experienced from MDMA. For many, psychedelic substances restore the zest for life that is lost to anxiety and depressive symptoms. Like with all drugs and all experiences, it’s highly individual. Research presents the ability for psychedelics to assist patients with terminal illness and in pain, and how it has helped people alleviate existential dread (coming soon!). Stanislav Grof, a leading psychologist in the study of anomalous experiences, developed Holotropic Breathwork which is a mode of achieving holotropic states, like the effects of psychedelics, through particular breathing exercises. It serves as an alternative to psychedelic substances, and because it induces a similar state, it can help progress research without some of the obstacles faced when studying drugs. What’s perhaps most fascinating to me about psychedelic substances is that many of the chemicals present in them mimic what is already produced organically in our brains! Our brains are arguably equipped to be enhanced via substances that alter our perspectives. There is a kind of awareness we do not access regularly, but is always there for us. This also reveals a physical/chemical connection we humans have to plants and other life forms, a connection closer than we could have imagined!
Without veering off on a tangent, only a small percentage of the Earth’s ocean depths have been explored, and the multiverses of space have barely been comprehended. There are over 14,000 species of mushrooms with countless health and sustainability benefits. (One of the mushroom species is psilocybin, a psychedelic substance.) Human existence is still young comparatively speaking, and the possibility and potential of knowledge and insight is as vast as oceans, space, and our planet’s mushrooms. I think of plant medicine and hallucinogenic drugs as a step towards human consciousness evolution. The non-ordinary state of consciousness from psychedelics is a way to change perspectives and expand awareness, which can be frightening at first, and unfortunately this causes many people to reject ideas. It’s difficult to let go of the sense of security we have from what we already know. Psychedelics are a gateway towards an expansiveness we humans might not yet be ready for, but the shift will certainly be remarkable.
May every trip taken be fulfilling. It’s not a trip without the high! 😉 If you like this page, please share it!
A Few References:
Andrew Weil, Psychoactive Drugs Through Human History (series of 10 videos)
Watts & Luoma, (2020) Psychedelic Assisted Therapy
Moreton, Szalla, Menzies, & Arena, (2019). Embedding existential psychology within psychedelic science: Reduced death anxiety as a mediator of the therapeutic effects of psychedelics. Psychopharmacology 237, 21-32.