I would like to offer my story as a lesson in both the blessings and the perils of psychedelics use, may it benefit those others walk this path. I feel like I can now come out of the closet as someone who has been an enthusiast and keen practitioner with these substances for many years. I believe opinion is shifting on this topic because many very successful mainstream public figures, for example Steve Jobs, Sam Harris and Joe Rogen have spoken of the contribution these substances have made to their lives and as a result people are less quick to right off everything else you say or do if you mention that you are partial to a few magic mushrooms every now and then. The public are realising that these are not merely play things for recreational use at music festivals, giving users a bizarre but fundamentally useless experience, but are also powerful catalysts for genuine transformation.
I am going to start with some general points and observations and then get in to specific substances and what they do.
I think 'entheogens' is a superb term to describe these substances, as they tend to induce religious and spiritual experiences. But I prefer to use the term ‘psychedelics’ because it is more common and alienates less people as these substances can be as transformative for atheists as much as theists.
I have been taking psychedelics since the early 1990’s. I have also tried all the hard drugs like heroin, opium, cocaine, and ampthetamines and found very little of interest in them (and plenty of perils). I want to be clear that I do not endorse the use of these hard drugs, and can only talk in positive terms about psychedelics. I was always more interested in exploring consciousness than merely feeling good. Like most people I started out with recreational use but that changed when I was 20 when I encountered shamanism, and I switched to intentional and sacred use. I also switched to mainly taking psychedelics on my own as there were less distractions that way and I could go deeper. The solo approach is similar to people who are drawn to solo wilderness survival versus camping with the family. Both are valid and have their own pros and cons. So, the solo path has been my way mainly, but it’s not necessarily the right way for everyone. The main substances I have experience with are Psilocybin, DMT, Ayahuasca, Ayahuasca analogues (psilocybin plus Syrian rue), MDMA, Ketamine and LSD, totalling somewhere in the range of 150 trips at the time of writing. Other substances of note are Bufo (5MeoDMT) Iboga, and the San Pedro and Mescaline cactuses. I mention these latter substances because many people find them to be powerful but I have no personal experience with them (yet) so won’t comment. It’s common for people to have one substance that they build the closest relationship with and mine has been psilocybin as that is the one that grows natively in my country, and fresh (not dried) magic mushrooms were legal until 2005 in the UK.
My journey started when I was 14 at a very traditional English boarding school. This context is interesting because you would have thought it was difficult to access and explore psychedelics in such an environment but it wasn’t. As is usually the case, where there’s a will there’s a way! This highlights the failing of drug prohibition laws, and the negative and ridiculous drug education, in stopping young people doing this stuff. I went to church twice a week but I had never had a mystical experience, nor met anyone who had. The religion was of the exoteric variety. I tried LSD and had a 1st person subjective experience of what they were only talking about in church, such as “God is love”. I also saw through the traditionalism of my life up to that point, it actually seemed like a complete joke, and that was the start of my move beyond traditionalism into the worldview of modernity. LSD was a good choice because there was no drug test that could prove I had taken it (people did have urine tests at school which picked up other banned substances) and it was also very discreet to hide, simply looking like paper. Our drug education at school was a complete farce, taught by people who had no personal experience and just told us scare stories. I did get in trouble with my parents at the time, and they had very little information or experiential resources to draw upon to help me, and because I was at boarding school not much power to stop me. The internet was not in wide spread use which meant we truly were in the dark ages, with only urban myths, peer support and encouragement to rely on. As teenagers we didn’t have the rites of passage we needed (like they do in indigenous cultures) so our psyche’s sought them without the skilled leadership of elders - the result was pretty sketchy and frankly dangerous. I firmly believe that all drugs should be legal mainly because we need this stuff out in the open to help people navigate this journey. Prohibition has not curbed usage, drug usage is very widespread, and has merely been pushed underground thus creating an immature culture around it and lots of money for organised crime. As we know through psychology what is not brought out of the basement and owned consciously will be condemned to arrested development. My advice to parents is to have open communication about drugs with your children and not make it taboo even if the topic makes you quake with fear, this gives you the best chance of helping your children get through this if it turns out to be their path.
I moved to London when I was 20 and did a joint BA degree in religions and world music at the School of Oriental and African studies. Part of this course was a very in depth study of shamanism. This was the peak of my immersion in the postmodern worldview. I was being disintegrated by falling in love with indigenous cultures and utterly despising my own. It’s funny to look back on it now as I was so concerned about white people being racist colonialists that I unconsciously became racist against white people like myself. This was one of many internal inconsistencies within the postmodern worldview that began to make life hard for me. This corrosive process was accelerated by taking a wide variety of psychedelics. One of the worst things about this time was that I reawakened the dark side of my premodern psyche and was living a real life Carlos Castaneda novel. I became obsessed with spirits, magic and demons as is common in the animist shamanic cultures I was studying. I now know from the inside what the dark side of tribal superstition is like. As is par for the course within postmodernity I was being taught to romanticise the tribal worldview but what was not being emphasised enough was the toll that fear of malevolent forces takes on one’s own psyche and that of the people living in such societies. As a kind of survival mechanism I also had a mobilisation of my egoic power (Red in spiral dynamics terminology) in response to these threats and I became infatuated with MagiK and the likes of Alisdair Crowley - this was my attempt to bend nature to my will and control the chaos I was experiencing. It didn’t take me long to feel like a mosquito trying to bite an iron bull as the Zen saying goes. I was buying the narrative that Enlightenment meant the freedom to be able to manipulate life in any way you wish - in a sense you become an all-powerful, totally egoic sorcerer. I now utterly reject this concept and the freedom of Enlightenment means something completely different to me: more along the lines of realising the perfection of life as it is on its own terms and not needing to desperately force my will upon it. Unfortunately postmodernity offers nothing to rebuild you on the other side of the type of dissolution I was experiencing. So I was left hanging, fractured and depressed. Luckily for me I moved out of London after my 3 year degree and away from the social group, and my dissatisfaction with postmodernism drove me towards what is often called the integral movement.
Another danger of this period was that I surrendered myself to a mentor who was incredibly intelligent, charismatic and powerful but had frankly taken too many psychedelics and lost himself to delusion. He believed that he was being trained by the various psychedelics to press the reset button on the universe. This made perfect sense to me at the time as I thought this guy was amazing and I believed everything he said. Looking back I can see that he had become absorbed in his own 1st person experiences and hadn’t allowed them to be tempered by interaction with the 2nd and 3rd person perspectives of a wider community of practitioners (2nd person) and science / philosophy (3rd person). The reason why I bring this up is to show that being 20 is a perilous time and many of us at this age blindly follow people who are simply crazy. I also raise this to warn older people who have people of that age group in their sphere of influence to beware because even if you don’t want them to they will treat you as their mentors. This guy never said “I will be your teacher” I made that decision without his permission or even telling him. This was a very vulnerable time for me, and I sorely needed strong and sane leadership, which again was not widely available as the internet was only just starting to be used in the mainstream and this stuff was illegal. I also think that powerful psychedelic experiences can become fused with your ‘teacher’ and be projected on to them.
I transitioned from chemicals like LSD and ketamine to psilocybin mushrooms and plants as I began to feel that the synthesised chemicals didn’t quite have the soul that the plants did. I still feel this way and would always advise people to seek the actual plants and not the synthesised isolates. This is partly due to the chemical complexity of the plants and fungi which have many other ingredients that probably work in some kind of harmony to produce the experience, as opposed to synthetically isolating one particular alkaloid.
I also learned that it was important to leave more time between psychedelic experiences to integrate them. The appropriate period will vary between people. It is similar to strength training, you strain your muscles through training and need to leave adequate time for recovery or else you won’t make the gains delivered through the adaption process. It is important to lean into your edge but don’t work to another person’s timetable and dosage plan. Your edge is were your edge is, focus on that and don’t worry about what others are doing. I’ve found it takes a while to readjust to normal life over the following week and I can get quite a temper as my biology has been somewhat rewired. If this is not consciously recognised and planned for in advance it can create interpersonal strife. The solution is to openly admit to yourself and your loved ones that you will be a bit ratty for a week or so afterwards and to not take it personally as it is mainly a matter of biology and it will gradually sort itself out.
It is fairly common for people into spirituality to say that using psychedelics is “cheating” or the “easy” path. This is utter bullshit! Take 5g of dried psilocybin mushrooms and then tell me afterwards that was an easy experience. Having said this, I think what these people are pointing to but phrasing it totally wrong, is that these substances are nearly guaranteed to give you a powerful mystical experience every time. Whereas it can take many years of meditation or visualisation practice to have full blown mystical experiences. This has definitely been my experience. I have been meditating since the mid 1990’s and it was 10 years before I began to consistently have mystical experiences in meditation. The first 10 years was mainly hard work and frustration but I knew it was a marathon not a sprint and it has paid off and I have loved meditating everyday since around 2007. The psychedelics really helped during the first 10 years of meditation practice, because they were delivering the altered states I was seeking which allowed me to plod away with faithfulness to my more boring meditation practice. In a nutshell I was a 'seeker' with meditation and a 'finder' with psychedelics. In the long run though, meditation is what precipitated the biggest shift in my sense of identity. There are transpersonal aspects to who I feel and know I am that are part of my everyday now thanks to sustained meditation practice. Psychedelics have definitely helped facilitate this beneficial shift in identity but they have worked on different levels to my meditation practice and I will get in to that later.
What are the benefits and downsides of these different substances? They are very like a pantheon of deities all with unique qualities.
Ketamine showed me that without being asleep and dreaming, waking reality could utterly disappear and be replaced by a kind of waking dream world. It was my first immersion in a purely subtle realm outside of dreaming. I have done quite a bit of lucid dreaming and dream analysis in therapy and there is a big difference between the wisdom delivered in a dream and a psychedelic state. The main difference is that a significant portion of the perception and knowledge delivered by these substances is utterly beyond all our normal reference points and totally novel when first encountered. Dreams usually follow archetypal and mythological narratives that are familiar, as is often the case with psychedelics, but psychedelics also sometimes go beyond archetypal forms, so in this sense I don’t think dreaming can be said to be a substitute for the psychedelic experience. At higher doses ketamine also took me into a formless realm too where there was nothing but whiteness and my formless awareness. It was very peaceful, full of trust and love. So, I was taken in short order into states of consciousness that can take years of sustained effort in other types of spiritual practice such as meditation. The benefit of this was that I knew from personal experience that what the mystics were talking about was true, I didn’t need to just believe them, but the downside was that I ended up with a big split between my spiritual psychedelics experiences and my normal day-to-day consciousness which seemed unbearably bland. That gap grew wider and took a big toll on my mental and emotional well being. This is the YO-YO effect of being God and coming crashing down into humanity, and then back up again and down.....One sees it with children who are Gods or Goddesses in their video games, but when they have to switch off the game they are left in their ‘real life’ having to deal with annoying siblings, parents, school and bullies. The warning here is that states of consciousness require time and supplemental practices to translate into more permanent stages of consciousness. Mainly due to psychedelics I have had nearly every type of mystical experience I have ever heard of. The work Wilber and Coombs did on separating states and stages of consciousness makes perfect sense to me, and it is something I wish I had encountered earlier in my life. The basic premise of their model is that states of consciousness don’t necessarily translate into permanently acquired stages of consciousness.
Cannabis, although not in the same category as the other substances is worth a mention as it is extremely popular. It’s fundamental quality is that it enhances the sense of novelty in every experience which leads to philosophical and psychological insights and intense enjoyment of our organismic self. This makes one bring a beginner’s mind to music (whether creating yourself or passively listening), eating is enormously pleasurable (hence the munchies), sex and yoga become very profound as one’s capacity to go deep into sensations is increased, you will visually appreciate things in ways you never had and smelling the roses is.....well words fail. The sense of physical relaxation is very potent, and the relinquishing of the logical mind can really help one unwind from the stress of the day. It has a very low level of toxicity so is safe for your body. That’s the good stuff. There are downsides too. Paranoia! I was nearly destroyed by paranoia in my early 20’s and I had to take a 10 year break from all cannabis consumption. When I took it up again I was delighted to find that I was no longer toppled by paranoia. I still feel those feelings but they are not problematic like they used to be. I put this down to having done many years of meditation and psychotherapy. In particular my training in Voice Dialogue has enabled me to allow paranoid feelings to be what they are on their own terms because I know in my bones that they are not the whole picture and merely a single perspective that would like to be heard and honoured in the moment. I am much more at home with my vulnerability and find it more sweet than annoying as I get older. Much of my therapy has revolved around building a strong and healthy ego, whereas earlier in my life I had not done that mainly due to boarding school interrupting some of the secure attachment I needed at that stage of development. My advise is that if you suffer from paranoia, take a break from cannabis and do some work building a more robust and healthy sense of self.
The biggest impact I think any substance has had on me is Ayahuasca. The first time I tried it the experience repeated itself again in my dreams the next night and the following night without having ingested anymore of the substance, that’s how deep the impression was on my system. It was also the first time I had an unmistakable ‘I and Thou’ experience in the sense that Martin Buber meant it. She, the goddess, was a being unfathomably greater than me and very much real and unimaginably intelligent and caring. She takes you directly to your worst fears and says “lets deal with this right now” sometimes with smooth and gentle care and sometimes with fierce love. Often this involves dealing with the fear of dying or going insane. She will take you through the dying process or the process of totally losing your mind, but she will hold your hand while she does it. You also discover that the extremity of these experiences brings online parts of your identity that you never imagined you had that are capable of dealing with the situation. There is a striking resemblance to the near death experience literature and Ayahuasca experiences. To have been totally undone into what in the moment really seems like death and then to find that we all have the parts of our identity that are at home in that experience fundamentally changes one’s fear of death. You may wonder how you will be able to cope with dying. It may seem inconceivable to you now, but when it is actually happening I am sure you will be surprised at what you are capable of. Ayahuasca has been so profound that I have not felt the urge to do it that often. It is fairly common in that world for people to drink it every month or even weekly. I can’t talk from personal experience about this level of consumption but I do wonder how effective the integration is in these cases. I once met a lady who had drunk it probably a hundred or more times say “I want to know why after drinking so much ayahuasca, my life is still such a mess?” I think understanding the difference between states of consciousness and stages of consciousness (see the Wilber-Coombs lattice) can really help with this kind of situation. States do not automatically become traits or permanently acquired stages of development. Integration is the buzz word in the psychedelics community. What is this integration they speak of? Usually it involves a series of talk therapy sessions afterwards. I think this is a start, but far better, in my opinion, is to adopt a holistic integral life practice - such as combining long term practice in meditation, psychotherapy, studying philosophies that help make sense of life (such as integral theory and the like), and some body-based practices such as strength training, yoga or tai chi.
I have smoked DMT as well which although utterly amazing, I believe to be inferior to ayahuasca mainly because it lacks the deeply healing nature of ayahuasca and lasts only 5 minutes versus 5 hours. It definitely takes you to the same ‘place’ - a kind of hyperspace dome filled with intelligent beings who take quite an interest in you. If you are a materialist and believe that biological organisms are all there is then smoking DMT will show you things that you will have trouble fitting into that worldview.
Roger Walsh draws a distinction between knowledge questions and wisdom questions. A knowledge question is “is it raining outside?” Or “what type of atoms make up a water molecule?”. A wisdom question is “what is the purpose of my life?” Or “should I leave my job?”. I believe that psychedelics are superb for answering wisdom questions, but quite hit and miss when it comes to knowledge questions. Drawing hard ontological conclusions is a very dodgy business with theses substances and this is where the concepts of 1st (subjective), 2nd (intersubjective) and 3rd (objective) person perspectives really come in handy. Your 1st person phenomenological experience on say DMT is true and unassailable as such, it is your truth. But then you need to take that perspective and test it against the 2nd person (your community of friends, family and spiritual practitioners) and 3rd person perspectives (science, philosophy etc). Messiah complex is a real danger, remember my mentor from my 20’s who thought he was the one to reset the universe! What is interesting is where you find overlaps between your experience and that of others, but if you have an experience that has no correspondence with anyone else then you need to be at least a little sceptical and don’t push that view on the rest of the world. There is nothing more boring than being forced to hear detailed accounts of people’s trips as much of the content is only relevant to that person and doesn’t land with others. There was much made of the year 2012 and the Mayan calendar in the psychedelics world and that has not stood up in the 3rd person objective world. I am writing this in 2020 and the promised revolution never happened in 2012 as far as I can see. Over the years I have become less interested in the ontological revelations from my trips, and more focused on getting out of the way and letting the substance do it’s thing with me, which is usually some sort of healing or opening up at various different levels. The main thing I have learned is to trust our ability to morph into forms beyond our wildest imaginations and that we can learn to be OK with that. The forces that carry us through this are love and courage, and we have reserves of these that we never knew we had until circumstances require us to use them. This really is training for dying in the sense that no one knows what happens when we die, but we can be sure that it helps the process if we can trust enough to let go in to the transformation that it inevitably involves. The former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson has offered the most succinct statement regarding the ability to tolerate this morphing during his deep psychedelic experiences when he says “no, no, no, no...Yeah!”. Another type of trust I have developed is the trust in the homeostatic centre of gravity of our self identity - no matter how far out of your mind you go, you always eventually come back. Very occasionally an unfortunate individual really does lose their mind, but no more than those who lose their minds without taking drugs.
One very common theme from ayahuasca and mushrooms is that people tend to pay particular attention to healthy living and care for the environment which is crucial for our moment in history. This puts them apart from hard drugs whose users tend to do the opposite. The 60’s and 70’s were about LSD, the 80’s and 90’s were about MDMA, and the 2000’s so far have been about DMT and ayahuasca which fits well into the current narratives around the environmental crisis and the importance of ecologically sound living.
MDMA will teach you about love. Not the transpersonal type of love one experiences with ayahuasca and psilocybin but a very personal type of love. You will be totally in love with extremely mundane aspects of people, for example you will be in ecstasy, hanging on every word as someone tells you what their favourite food is, or what noises their dog makes when it sleeps. To be so interested in every aspect of another person teaches a profound lesson to those who might tend towards privileging the impersonal through practices like meditation. If you only believe that “we are not our personality or our stories, and they are just the trap of illusion” then you need to take MDMA and see the exquisite beauty of a complete stranger’s love for Pokemon or knitting scarves! MDMA is quite toxic and you need to build in a recovery period for the following few days, and too much MDMA use has been linked to problems with neurotransmitters and even the nerve connected to your bladder.
Psilocybin is my best friend of the lot. Eating magic mushrooms is a practice stretching back tens and probably hundreds of thousands of years. Psilocybin mushrooms have extremely low toxicity and are biologically very safe. On a molecular level psilocybin is close to DMT. The more I have taken DMT and ayahuasca, the more my mushroom trips have taken on a DMT flavour. This is pure anecdote but I have come across other people talking about this on internet forums. I think building up a close and long term relationship with one substance is a good idea as there are things that are only revealed over time. The mushrooms have taught me that everything really is connected, and interestingly this seems to reflect the nature of the organism's networked mycelium biology. I believe this is not just a conceptual adjustment but that my brain has been physically changed over the years to give rise to this interconnected perspective. Psychology literature claims embracing paradox is a sign of emotional and cognitive maturity and a long term relationship with mushrooms will teach you that in a very direct manner. After a mushroom trip if another person were to ask “was your trip good?” one would have difficulty answering that in a straight forward way. One might reply “It was good, funny and awesome, but also difficult, terrifying and astonishing all at once” sound like life doesn’t it! The mushroom has taught me to let go of trying to fit life in to concepts like good and bad as they are totally inadequate descriptions of reality.
Terence McKenna had a good saying: “Don’t give in to astonishment” This is one of the key capacities developed through a long term practice with psychedelics. In the beginning with larger doses it’s quite common to be overwhelmed by astonishment and come out the other side feeling “What the fuck just happened!” This is similar to how Arjuna felt after Krishna revealed his true form to him in the Bhagavad Gita, basically he couldn’t bare it. But through putting yourself in this situation repeatedly you can learn to be centred enough to look and feel beyond the astonishment because that is where the treasure lies. This is where a meditation practice also comes in handy as this is using mindfulness in extreme situations. Learning to remain centred when all your usual moorings have been ripped away is a universally beneficial skill.
Integral theory has been very helpful for me in relation to psychedelics. The spiral dynamics framework is a powerful aid to psychedelics. I can go up and down the spiral on a trip and work at any level upon it, all the while knowing that it is a partial perspective which allows me to come back out again rather than getting struck and over-identified. This was the problem when I was very much identified with postmodernity. I got stuck in the tribal superstitions and couldn’t find my way out which led to fear and paranoia. What helped get me out was re-embracing logic and reason later on. This became like Ariadne’s thread leading me back out from the premodern perspective. Voice dialogue and the Big mind process have taught me to be able to go deep in to any perspective, drink the wisdom there, and come back out again. It is a kind of contemporary version of spirit possession. I can become possessed by rage for example without becoming violent or losing myself in it, yet extracting the wisdom and power from it. I have been meditating for many years which has really helped by establishing my identity in formless and unchanging awareness. This capacity allows me to go deep into a trip without losing myself and ‘going unconscious’ very much like lucid dreaming.
Meditation and psychedelics do different things. But those two traditions do like to say otherwise! The stability of awareness developed through meditation is not often delivered through psychedelics, and the overwhelming and powerful subtle states of psychedelics may never appear in a lifetime of meditation practice. My meditation practice took roughly 10 years before I started to enjoy it and have profound shifts in my sense of identity. Waking up to my identity as formless awareness plus the universe of form changed everything, and meditation switched from effort to effortless. So, during those rather boring 10 years of meditation practice my hunger for altered states was satiated by the psychedelics which deliver profound state experiences nearly 100% of the time. I think combining the 2 practices is powerful and broad, but you won’t hear that said very often as each ‘school of thought’ likes to pretend that they have all the answers! In meditation traditions it is quite common to romanticise mystical states of consciousness and believe that it would be really great to be in that state all the time. Ask anyone with significant experience with psychedelics whether they would want to be like that permanently and I think most would say “are you crazy! That would not be fun or useful. To come back down and make a cup of tea, be able to do your tax return, pick out a loaf of bread at the supermarket - these are underestimated!” To come back and drink from the mainstream is very important, and we can grow to love the cosy welcoming arms of normality as much as the forays into the unknown.
Two things that tripping deliver on are a sense of adventure and courage. You may think you are a tough guy, but lets see how you get on with a heroic dose of magic mushrooms or a deep ayahuasca journey? As a species we tend to focus on exterior adventure, going backpacking to remote lands for example. But, there are worlds beyond your wildest imaginings to visit when you combine your own consciousness with one of these plant medicines. One very helpful thing that these substances bring with them into these courageous adventures is a great sense of humour. The cosmic joke is very apparent to most psychedelic enthusiasts, which is a saving grace when shit starts to get really heavy!
The role of the shaman is changing. The paradigm is moving more towards mutuality and away from the shaman as guru. The best shamans are facilitators, because after all it’s about you and the substance. A good shaman knows how to facilitate a profound experience for you without imposing their will and ego inappropriately. Watch out for bad shamans, they can cause a lot of damage! The same rules apply here as they do to Gurus. Just read some books about people’s bad experiences with people like this and that should give you some discernment skills.
Alan watts said about psychedelics “when you’ve got the message hang up the phone” I love Alan Watts’s but I disagree. This is a practice like anything else. In meditation when you wake up to your non-dual, supreme identity, you don’t stop meditating, you keep doing it because you love it and there is always more. There is no final destination, rather more of an unending deepening.
I believe that experience with psychedelics can facilitate deeper meditation. Not so much in the case of meditation as a relaxation technique, but more in the sense of waking up to our transpersonal identity. This can require quite a significant shift in a person’s perspectives that they may be unaccustomed to if they have not had many transpersonal state experiences before. To wake up to our formlessness or our non-dual Kosmic identity is quite a leap from our normal waking identification with our personality, and to begin with can feel a little like tripping on a psychedelic. If you are familiar with non-ordinary states then you will be less likely to freak out.
Looking to the future, one major lesson from psychedelics is that a little tweak in the chemistry of your body can temporarily completely change the way you perceive and interpret the present moment. It’s also not just one type of shift, each substance provides a unique and utterly different perspective, eg. Ketamine is completely different to psilocybin. With the potential of brain implants, gene manipulation and nano technology, what kind of species would we become if we were to integrate this range of perceptual possibilities into the day-to-day consciousness of the average human? It’s a freaky yet exciting thought.
P and C owned by Ralph Cree 2020