by Joan Harvey
It was inevitable. Michael Pollan’s justly lauded book, How to Change Your Mind, was going to lead straight, sensible, old people to doing drugs. “Today I am a middle-aged journalist working in London, the finance editor of The Economist, a wife, mother, and, to all appearances, a person totally devoid of countercultural tendencies,” writes Helen Joyce in the New York Review of Books, after having gone off to Amsterdam to do a good dose of psilocybin.
And of course all kinds of people are tripping these days. The musician Sudan Archives says she was “doing a lot of psychedelics….I swear to God, when I started to experiment with stuff like that, that’s when I became a little more creative.”
Suzy Batiz, who got extremely rich by developing “Poo-Pouri” (a product I’ve somehow never felt the need to buy) mentions that she has done 94 ayahuasca ceremonies to date. From her ayahusasca experiences she has decided she’s a “business shaman.” Yikes! Has it come to this already?
These nice people are having the usual ecstatic experiences that somehow can be expressed only in cliché. “It is possible to feel differently about things,” the journalist writes. “You don’t have to be who you’ve always been. More things are choices than you imagined. Ordinary things are very beautiful if you’ve the eyes to see.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for this. And I doubt I could write about psychedelic experiences in any particularly interesting way. But in my neck of the woods, the mountains above Boulder, inhabited by an odd mix of outsiders, the children of outsiders, and occasional outsider college professors, I’m pretty sure the percentage of those who have done acid and other psychedelics is far higher than the national (or for that matter global) norm. It is not unusual to be at weddings here in which a decent percentage of the people are in various altered states. The most astonishing aspect of Pollan’s book for many of us was that he didn’t trip until he was almost 60. How did he manage, we wonder, to get so far without?
Partly it seems to be due to East Coast versus West. The artist Joseph McVetty, interviewed in Juxtapose magazine, expresses the cultural differences well:
I am willing to bet, though, that in the Pacific Northwest of the United State, the tradition of psychedelic exploration hasn’t so much re-emerged as it has never stopped.
The culture here on the West coast is so radically different from where I was raised back East that some of my initial experiences here in Portland were quite moving; life affirming to me in a big way…
I find that one of the main differences out here is the drive of the culture. The impetus here is to embrace the light and shine; people want you to be having a good time… Out here it’s a tripper’s culture for sure. The kids that live out here were raised by trippers, a tradition that has never gone away.
Hannah Stouffer, who did the Juxtapose interview, grew up where I did, in Aspen, which is where I first did acid at age thirteen with a bunch of other kids and the older hippies who gave it to us. Thirteen was not an unusual age to start. There wasn’t any thought of controlled use or set and setting — the world was both. Sam Harris and various neuroscientists on his podcast talk about the sense of oneness arrived at on these trips (though his last big-dose psilocybin trip was something more), and yes, oneness and loss of ego, all very true. But I grew up wandering around in the woods, mostly alone, awed and in love with the incredible beauty of the world around me, so a sense of oneness with the outside world came pretty early. I also started meditating at a relatively young age, though I have had a regular practice only on and off through the years. Psychedelics have almost always been reassuring for me. Ordinary life is much harder to navigate. A close friend who also first did psychedelics at thirteen says the same thing.
Something else can also be said for early psychedelic experience: it can make opioids and amphetamines seem relatively boring. A man I know who did a lot of acid when he was young told me that later when he shot up heroin he did not find it very interesting in comparison, unlike many of his other friends who became junkies. On the other hand, Oliver Sacks, who had had plenty of psychedelic experience, found shooting up morphine so entrancing that he vowed never to do it again. Which is just to say that so many factors are involved there is no way to say what will work and what won’t work. Psychedelics can be dangerous for some, and the warnings given by Pollan and Harris and others are warranted. Doing too high a dose of psychedelics too young can very occasionally lead to psychosis, and this should not be discounted. I know plenty of people who have done somewhat stupid things while tripping, but survived with good stories to tell; for example, taking a hit of LSD and climbing a steep mountain pass to see the sunset, and only then realizing that they’d have to descend in the dark. And I’ve also known some terrible casualties, though one would have to admit that alcohol casualties far outnumber those of psychedelics. But because in Western culture the taking of psychedelics has been primarily recreational, I think it is wrong to discount the mostly positive experiences, or insist that everyone needs babysitting, or, as seems to be increasingly the case, embracing the projection that only those trips taken in controlled circumstances are worthwhile.
There is plenty of discussion these days of high dose and microdose, but I also want to address the in-between, in which one is in an altered state, perhaps hallucinating a bit (I remember once in college driving in my tiny Honda and seeing that the man in the car next to me had long spaniel ears), but not completely incapacitated. I’ve skied on half-hits of acid, flashing in and out of control, but never in danger to myself or others. While I’d be interested in doing a large dose of mushrooms in a controlled environment–Sam Harris describes his recent experience in extremely compelling terms–there are other times I wonder why would one want to be lying in a darkened room with terrible music, when one could be out marveling at the trees, or playing with the nearest entrancing human being. “The facilitators put on a playlist of music created for the therapeutic use of psilocybin, involving harps and pan pipes and choral singing,” Helen Joyce writes. Possibly this would be bearable on mushrooms, but why subject oneself. Please, please, no.
In the awed discussions of psychedelics going on these days it has almost become a requirement that one reaches a deeply spiritual state. I have had ecstatic experiences, experiences drenched in love, wildly beautiful visuals, ghosts, cartoons, cellular fine tuning, emotional catharsis, but never any sense of God or possibly what others might consider spiritual. On the other hand, I’m someone who often in regular life tumbles accidentally into a kind of rapture, terrible for getting any work done. This is not to minimize the dark side of life, with which I’ve also had plenty of acquaintance, but to say rather that yes, while the drugs are mind altering, to validate only a certain kind of experience they might bring is also limiting.
My first mushroom experience in college was perhaps the most profound for me. Not in terms of anything mystical, and I’ve had much more intensely psychedelic experiences other times, but because it showed me that underneath all my issues, my insecurities and anxieties and shyness, I was essentially sound. Due to the fact that I was out in the world interacting with other people rather than in a dark room alone, the mushrooms opened to me a great sense of possibilities of relationship and play. There was something basically humorous and delighted with the world at my core. A very unserious spirituality. Deep down I’m a goofball. Because of my particular personality, interacting with other humans while I was tripping was more meaningful to me than just being in my head somewhere would have been.
As each person is different and each trip on the same substance can be different, it is good to acknowledge that one should not expect the same thing from every drug. A friend in the medical profession, with no prior psychedelic experience, did ketamine in a controlled setting before beginning to use it to treat depressed patients. He had a profoundly deep, amazing, important, and awe-filled experience. Whereas the few times I’ve done ketamine in uncontrolled situations, it was enjoyable, but hardly as mind-expanding as it was for my friend. Whether perhaps he had a higher dose, or (as a neuro-psychologist friend thinks), because I’ve done quite a few other more revelatory psychedelics, or a combination of both, it’s not possible to say.
On the other end of the spectrum, another friend, a lay Zen priest who, over many decades, had the most serious meditation practice of anyone I’ve ever known, and who also had experience tripping when young, decided to do a really large dose of mushrooms, six grams, after reading Pollan’s book. Even though the dose was huge, he didn’t feel much, and I wonder if his years of meditation made this mushroom experience less informative. He did report, however, that afterwards he was able to sit in full lotus position, which he hadn’t done in years. He told me he felt he was giving birth to death. He hadn’t known he was ill, but he died shortly afterwards, a terribly painful death from late-stage cancer which he was able to treat as a kind of extreme sport.
I actually have done drugs in a controlled “safe” space, though not one with music or coaching. A few years ago I did ayahuasca both in Colorado and Peru, though nothing like the 94 times of Miss Poo-Pouri. When doing ayahuasca in the settings I did, one lies supervised in a darkened room, and the only music is the beautiful icaros, the songs the shamans sing to you. Happily for me there was no discussion before or after, no coaching, no new age stuff. (Oddly, my mother tried it before I did, surprising me by telling me she was going to do ayahuasca for her 80th birthday. When we saw her afterwards she was changed; warmer and sweeter and her body was more flexible.) I should also mention, with all this fear of psychedelics, that in some ayahuasca cultures the brew is given to pregnant women. And, at each ceremony, the shaman imbibes as well as those participating, so that unlike in the controlled environments in which a sober person watches over one, the person in charge is tripping too. Shamans take ayahuasca over and over, night after night, thousands of times, sometimes combined with other drugs, with no ill effects.
No matter the setting, it is worth remembering that even in deeply altered states one has some say, the set part of “set and setting.” Neal Goldsmith writes, “Mind-set is perhaps the single most important factor in determining the outcome of a psychedelic experience.” He also points out that if one is determined to avoid certain emotional issues, the stress of that evasion could cause its own set of problems. An example of someone determining the course of a trip is given by Oliver Sacks, who describes wanting to see “true” indigo. He took a cocktail of drugs that included LSD, amphetamine, and cannabis and then saw the purest indigo, a color he was unable to ever find again.
In ayahuasca culture it is suggested that one develop a relationship with the plant (or really plants; ayahuasca is a combination of an MAO-inhibiting vine and other plants containing DMT), and I told the plant that I didn’t want any snakes, and I got no snakes. Of course now in retrospect I kind of wish I’d had a few, just to see what that would be like. One time when the drug first took effect and my whole body was shaking violently I said to the plant “Put me down! I’m not your goddamned rattle!” which, I confess, I thought very funny at the time. I didn’t really believe I was communicating with the vine, but on the other hand, having ingested it, why not? Like many psychedelics, the drug comes on in waves, and one has a choice to go with it, letting it carry one where it will, but if one is going to really dark places that feel impossible to handle, it’s usually possible to change course, and to switch to love and wonder.
Of course the subject of psychedelics and drugs in general is vast, containing ideas of self, consciousness, chemistry, neuroscience, genetics, culture, and history. Basically we still know very little. Roland Griffiths and Sam Harris point out how interesting and promising research in psychedelics was halted for more than a generation, and made completely illegal. Neither of them could think of any other instance of this happening in history.
It is also important to remember that the psychedelic rebirth is mostly a privileged white phenomenon, and one should note that to glorify psychedelics and stigmatize other drugs can be, as neuroscientist Carl Hart has discussed, reinforcing racism. One should not fall into the trap of “psychedelic exceptionalism”: “We have to guard against drug elitism, the thinking that your drug is better than someone else’s drug,” Hart said. “Whatever works best for you is fine.”
Rich white people’s drugs get a different treatment than those of people in poverty, and Michael Pollan’s and Sam Harris’s well-intentioned statements that psychedelics should be done only in controlled situations makes the use of them even more elitist. Most people who use illegal drugs don’t have a drug problem, and drug use does not necessarily result in any kind of addiction or downward spiral. And one has only to read Oliver Sacks on his many years of addiction to amphetamines to know that, with certain temperaments, one can function well, though not necessarily happily. As for treating addiction, Hart calls for a “focus not just on ‘treating’ drug use, but also on treating mental and physical illnesses, and addressing people’s traumatic life experiences.” He also advocates treating “socioeconomic stratification, as exemplified by poverty and homelessness, which only compound problematic drug use.” The war on drugs has been far more destructive to our society than drugs themselves.
Today, not even counting the attention to the research that neuroscientists like Anil Seth and Robert Carhart-Harris are doing, it’s difficult not to read about people doing psychedelics. It still isn’t possible, however for most people to go to a guide and get dosed as Pollan has done. Sam Harris has mentioned wanting to start a way to do psychedelics safely at meditation retreats. A good idea, but a retreat without the drugs already costs hundreds if not thousands of dollars, especially if you include travel expenses. As it has been over the decades, recreational use will still be the only mode available to most, though perhaps people who have been afraid to try psychedelics will now do so with their more experienced friends watching over them.
At a number of music festivals (that yes, are mostly white middle class), a large percentage of young people are tripping on some sort of psychedelic substance, and also experiencing awe, love, and oneness, even though they’re not lying quietly in darkened rooms. Some of these festivals now have booths where, without danger of arrest, one can have one’s drugs analyzed for purity. While I’m all in favor of nice older intellectuals getting dosed in controlled spaces, it would contribute much more to drug safety to have booths like this everywhere, so that people can be sure that all their drugs (including heroin and meth) aren’t mixed with something else. This is just one step that could be taken. People enraptured by the beauty of psychedelics should work for decriminalization, and we should all look for ways to make all drug use, not just that of wealthy white people, safer.