[Looking back on this 18 months later, the image above makes me smirk… It reveals my own misconceptions about this, which would later become obvious. My advice? Don’t believe psychedelic lore. Carefully, see for yourself.]
Whuuuuuuuuuuuuur. Hear that? It’s the gentle low-pitch hum of a dehumidifier fan, operating at 160F, drying 30 or so magic mushrooms I harvested from a plastic tub in my kitchen. The ambient noise of the fan plus birds singing in the early morning hours are insanely satisfying to write to. The subtle smell of drying mushrooms hits me when I enter the room to check on them. We’ll get back to this. For the record, I’m as sober as a judge. I have been for about 3 years. I hold nothing against marijuana, alcohol, or any other psychoactive compound du jour, nor do I have any horrible relationships with them. It’s simply been a goal to REALLY observe who I am for a while, with minimal exogenous influence. I’ve also never taken a psychedelic.
For the last 20 years, I’ve shackled myself to work. Who chained me? I did, enthusiastically. In one hand, holy cow, some of the things I’ve accomplished were wildly challenging and satisfying. Most importantly they put a roof over my head and food in my belly. They gave me a feeling of prestige and a sense of purpose. In the other hand I ask: what’s taken you so long to see “work” for what it is, my friend? In the big scheme, what does the sum of all this effort amount to? What the hell else is there to life? I mean seriously?
What’s that – some regret? No, it’s not quite that. The train I’m on has been one hell of a ride and impressed upon me a cornucopia of lessons, values, and wisdom, in addition to material comfort — however — it feels like my stop is coming up. Some new path lies ahead.
What the hell else is there, to life?
This question fuels a fire inside. It’s become too large and hot to ignore – I need to face it. And I don’t mean this in a, “what’s the meaning of life?” sort of way. What I mean is, for MY specific life, what other experiences and discoveries can I have before I’m dead? One thing is certain: if I remain in my current routine, very little will change. I’ll blink my eyes and it will all be over. And I’ll be very very comfortable materially as a dead person. And my obituary will read: this person worked really hard, and lived one hell of a comfortable life. And that scares the shit out of me.
The habits I’ve established
“Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.”
– William James
“One trouble with being human — with the human condition — is that, as with many conditions, you cannot turn it off. Even as we develop from relatively immobile, helpless infants into mobile, autonomous adults, we are more and more constrained by the ways we learn to see the world.”
– Alexandra Horowitz
In my experience as a young person (call it ages 10-20), I was pretty open minded about everything. Although it varies from person to person, young people generally have no idea how they feel about things. Of course they have opinions – but what I mean are deep convictions that emerge as a product of time and experience. Decades worth. “Wisdom”. Young adults don’t have that. As a consequence, most younger people see everything in the world as mysterious and compelling. They randomly bump into and embrace new people, new ideas, and new experiences that enrich their character and send them swirling in different directions. There’s everything to gain and almost nothing to lose. They surrender to decisions that may not seem totally rationale, intentionally, and they grow. And somewhere in this chaos they forge a durable version of themselves.
This wandering modality doesn’t last forever. At some point, society compels each of us to get serious, choose a vocation, and earn our bread. This is totally fair. But what are the tradeoffs? Our lives begin to revolve around “what we do”. At best, our identity merges with our work and we are exhilarated by it. At worst, we hate work and are merely there to earn money to live. In either case – our desire and capacity to aimlessly wander through life collecting random experiences becomes severely diminished and implicitly discouraged. Our life develops routine… our tastes, our interests, our schedules, are refined into what can fit nicely into our nights and weekends, and most compatible with other aspects of life: namely work, a romantic partner, and possibly family. In parallel, our friends are experiencing the same shifts and sacrifices. Our social groups morph and shrink as does our interactions with them. This process can be resisted and shaped with thoughtful effort, obviously. But much of it is inevitable. For most of us starting sometime in our late 20s and onward, our life conforms around our core obligations, and the majority of our golden waking hours are not spent cultivating our minds, figuring out who we are, and defining the purpose of our existence. Rather they are spent toward a living (even if it’s our passion work), and we likely give the remaining hours away to various amusements. Our lives become “practical” with zeitgeist pleasures sprinkled in. In my case, right now, today, this practical way of life has nearly exhausted its potential. The cost:benefit ratio of living this way is tilted too far toward cost – my time and my mind.
Psychedelics: a detour from habits
“The interesting thing about psychedelics is that they take this [default mode network] offline. When that happens, you have this sensation of ego-dissolution: that your self is evaporating or dissolving. And that seems to lead to new connections in the brain temporarily forming. Your emotion center starts talking directly to your visual cortex, let’s say, and you see things that you’re hoping or fearing. New connections are made that could produce new insights, new perspectives, new ways of looking at the world”
– Michael Pollan
If work were a religion, then I have been an exemplary follower. But the deepest currents in my mind have been shifting for a few years – some kind of metamorphosis underway. My slow epiphany is I have enough to sustain my life without this work religion – or at least this intensity of it. (The total luck and privilege in uttering these words, well before age 65, is not lost on me). Put another way: I wish to begin a new chapter where my mind is not so devoted toward earning a living – because I have already earned it. I can no longer watch myself stash random personal interesting todo items in a list, only to then watch them perpetually prioritized behind workday that dominates my schedule and mind. Even writing this post is something I’m cramming in on a beloved Sunday and picking-at on weekday mornings before the workday; a way of drawing a line in psychological sand which I’m determined to move past and not regress behind again. Establishing inertia toward some new place.
So why psilocybin/psychedelics? I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life optimizing my mind to work. Learning intricacies, of intricacies, of intricacies of my industry, and expertly communicating and collaborating with others on these ideas. Structuring my days, weeks, months, and years around this. I don’t want my brain configured this way anymore. I want a reboot. I want to see things with fresh eyes, from new angles. Angles I’ve never considered before. I want to view my mind from 100 miles up and carefully choose several new places to land on the descent back to sea-level – far from where I inhabit today. I want to reflect. I want to breathe the longest breath of my life. I want something on the continuum of a religious experience.
Do I think psychedelics do all of that? No. But I am certain they are a powerful tool in the toolbox of self-discovery and have something to contribute. I have carefully encountered, without deliberately looking for them, way too many smart, highly-educated people discussing psychedelics and their potential therapeutic properties, as well as many completely average people saying the same. See here, here, here, here, here, and here, as a sample. The evidence is overwhelming.
Psychedelics are famously purported to “dissolve the ego” and facilitate temporary, novel signaling in the brain. New mental pathways open up that potentially give way to new perspectives, which can then be integrated back into daily existence. After years of careful consideration, I wish to explore this myself. I see this as a supportive effort that coincides with change in my life, not something I’m interested in for the sake of a fireworks show. To quote Matthew Johnson, PhD in Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, “With psychedelics and the right dose, something interesting is going to happen”. I want to discover my version of “something interesting”.
How will this change me?
For my sake and the sake of any soul who reads this – I am determined to closely observe this process and share what I learn. I am not interested in plunging into this haphazardly… As intrigued as I am about the psychedelic experience, I fully heed advice that it deserves respect. I hear the most significant part of this process occurs in reflection and integration in the time after the experience, and not during the doses themselves (whether macro or micro). I see it as minimally beneficial to either me or society to move hastily into this and then sloppily inspect the experience.
I wish for my data point to be thoughtful and meaningful. Primarily so I can grow, secondarily so I can contribute one small drop of insight to a world that might benefit from it. As I have personally benefitted from the community of “citizen science” (a term from Dr. James Fadiman) — stories from everyday people that inform the global psychedelic conversation today, behind the curtain of government prohibition — I want to pay it forward.
What’s going to happen? I have no idea – I’d rather not become attached to an outcome. My intention is to open my mind – that’s as specific as I can be. The change may be inward, or outward, or a combination of the two, or neither. I am prepared to accept any outcome, as benign or profound as it may be. Whatever happens, I will share.
Is this really about psychedelics? Is this cheating, numbing out, or escaping something?
Most inhabitants of western society recognize we are surrounded by magic. Magic health foods, magic fitness machines, magic diets, and ESPECIALLY, magic pills and substances. They’ll make you happy, they’ll make you focused, they’ll keep your blood pressure down, they’ll make your skin glow, they’ll make you live longer, they’ll make you relaxed, they’ll make you confident, they’ll make you grow muscles, they’ll make you run fast, they’ll boost your sex drive. There are traces of genuine benefit to some of these, but I’ve developed ferocious skepticism and aversion toward the majority of magic fixes or escapist urges in our society.
When ANY substance intersects with the human body and mind, I can’t help but wonder about the motivation behind it on the consuming end — is it really just a lazy band-aid or escape from some more complicated physiological or psychological condition? I get that sometimes a little self-mind-manipulation is innocent, but the line between fun and life-altering seems blurry. It’s terrifying how normalized and casual it feels to routinely integrate substances into our lives – ones that might have a profound influence on who we are and keep us blind to deeper, underlying insights. From seeing our own essence.
So how is this endeavor any different? I’ve thought about this extensively:
1) This is not fleeting hedonism. I’m not doing this for thrill or feeling from a boring or painful existence. On the contrary, my mental climate is content. My mind and life are quiet. I am coming to appreciate how insightful it can be to “turn attention upon itself“, so to speak – to notice what the mind is doing throughout the day, as opposed to being swept-up and sloshed around in it’s current. I see this as supportive of that effort – to illuminate the nature of the mind.
2) Mushrooms grow in the natural world. Something about that makes them feel friendly. This is silly… most obviously because the wrong poisonous mushroom will end your life. But the fact this compound is not made in a lab — some human concoction that’s distributed with ulterior motive — is something I appreciate. The only human involvement here are shared lessons and encouragement with it’s cultivation and consumption. What’s more deeply human than that?
3) I see the end. Not a somber thought – just a fact. When I heard the term “over-the-hill” as a kid, I dismissed it as some goofy thing adults said to each other. Suddenly I realize how fucking brilliant the metaphor is: around middle-age, one is equidistant from infant diapers to hopefully-old-age terminus. Before you are “over” the hill, you are on TOP of it – reflecting on how you arrived and thinking about what the rest of the journey will be like. Well, here I am. On top of my hill. If there are any discoveries left to be made I had better go looking for them now. A life that once seemed infinitely long no longer seems that way.
4) Awareness and consciousness are constrained by human constructs and personal unconscious biases. This is irrefutable. Consider the invisible gorilla. Consider magic tricks, self-delusion, mass manipulation, the limitations of language, confirmation bias, dunning kruger effect, or any of the infinite ways this phenomenon shapes and affects our species. How do any of us know what we are oblivious to – how many metaphorical gorillas are right in front of us both in the physical and mental worlds, that we have no idea exist? It’s a profound psychological pickle. Even if one is humble enough to admit they have blind spots, how can they actually SEE them? Allegedly, psychedelics help.
5) I am curious but measured. At this moment I have zero appetite in becoming a Psychonaut – a chronic user of high dose psychedelics. For all I know, I will be back in six months, full 180, proclaiming the most profound knowledge can ONLY be found through the portal of Dimethyltryptamine, to be delivered by self-transforming machine elves on unintelligible reams of paper. But I doubt that – not thanks to my own instincts and willpower – instead thanks to all the humans who’ve come before me, either scientifically or personally, and put things into perspective. The quote from Ram Dass at the bottom of this post seems especially apt, here.
Ok then. See you on the other side.