Nassim Nicholas Taleb opens his acclaimed book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder with the following:
“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”
Certain stressors make a system stronger rather than weaker. If your bones and muscles aren’t put under a certain amount of stress, for example, they will grow brittle and waste away. The same appears to be true of the mind. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explores how the fashion for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” in liberal American culture is having a detrimental effect on people’s mental health, particularly among young people, making them more rather than less psychologically fragile.
What’s the best treatment for somebody suffering from chronic depression or anxiety? Should we try to remove all potential shocks to the system and cover them in metaphorical cotton wool? Or should we help them to gradually face increasingly challenging situations, as we commonly do in Exposure Therapy for the treatment of phobias? King Sudhdhodhana and Queen Maha Maya attempted to protect their son Gautama Buddha from the harsh realities of the world by making sure he never left the precincts of the royal palace. It was only when he stole out of the palace in the dead of night and saw the reality of old age, sickness and death with his own eyes that he could begin his journey to spiritual enlightenment.
Psychedelic therapy is no walk in the park, royal or otherwise. Far from being an escapist flight from the dark existential reality of life, it puts you in profound relation with it. There are periods of enjoyment, bliss and fun, but there are also extremely difficult and painful periods of chaos and turbulence, grief and horror. To indulge in a couple of well-worn cliches, when it comes to plant medicines, “the only way out is through” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
The almost unbearable intensity of psychedelic therapy makes it a true hero’s journey that calls forth the best we have. You could say it is profoundly “character building”. However, it works best when two key elements are in place: a deep sense of wonder and a deep trust in our innate antifragility.