Shamanism is Intense
The difference between the recreational and ceremonial use of psychedelics is not just about set and setting. It’s primarily about intensity. If you take magic mushrooms and go for a walk with friends, you will probably have quite a magical time. There will be wonder, surprise, surreal encounters, expansive feelings, profound conversations, fun and giggles.
These are valuable experiences in their own right, creative, exploratory and bonding, shared psychedelic adventures that make for good memories and great stories. They can go horribly wrong of course. Too high a dosage and not enough attention to set and setting can turn a multicoloured dreamscape into a multicoloured nightmare. Bad trips can sometimes spin out into full-blown psychosis and people can find themselves in dangerous and even life-threatening situations.
The clinical setting is much safer, though not as fun. Fun is not the point, of course, except indirectly. The point is treatment for conditions such as depression or anxiety which take the fun out life. The therapeutic psychedelic journey is taken solo with minimal guidance and support from a psychiatrist or trained sitter. There may be some interaction, but the talking is mainly done afterwards. Depending on several factors, primarily the dosage, a clinical psychedelic experience will vary in intensity, although, in the interests of safety, this will be kept within certain bounds.
The clinical setting has obvious parallels with the ceremonial setting, but there are also striking differences, the most basic being the level of intensity. Where the clinician is careful not to let the experience get too intense and keeps things relatively cool, the shaman turns up the heat. Where the clinician is worried that you may get too high, the shaman is worried that you may not get high enough.
Ceremonies are meant to be intense. A sesshin is intense. A sweat lodge is intense. Even a regular church service should be intense. Otherwise it’s just empty ritual or social convention. When it comes to psychedelics, this distinction is intuitively obvious. If a psychedelic ceremony isn’t intense, it should really be classed as recreational rather than ceremonial. The same applies to more conventional religious ceremonies like baptisms, weddings and funerals. They can also feel merely “recreational”.
It’s all about the experience. Intuitively, we know that there is something valuable about intense experiences. And it’s not just about the thrill factor, which might explain the allure of sky-diving and other extreme sports. So what is it? Specifically, what’s the spiritual value of intense experiences?
If you think about it, experience is always relational. Whether you are talking to someone or hugging someone, or talking to a tree or hugging a tree (even talking to yourself or hugging yourself) you are in a dynamic, dialogical relationship with someone or something else (even if that something else is a part of you). The more intense the relation, the closer and more entangled you become. Think of an intense conversation, for example. If you’re on the same wavelength, if you’re “vibing”, there comes a point where the boundary between you begins to dissolve, just as with intense dancing or intense love-making.
Relational intensity is therefore associated with intimacy. And intimacy, in its most intense manifestations, resolves itself into unity (or “nonduality”) where self and other, inside and outside, experiencer and experienced become one (or “not-two”). This is the essence of spiritual breakthrough: the leap from duality to nonduality. It requires a leap of faith, but it also requires a certain amount of intensity.
Shamanism is intense because shamanism is about spiritual breakthrough. It’s not a walk in the park.
Gary Weber has described in detail how the “default mode network” in the brain can be deactivated through meditation. He calls it the “blah blah blah”, because it is characterized by incessant chatter, sometimes pointless and inconsequential, but sometimes of seemingly huge import. In Buddhist circles, it is known as the “monkey mind”, not because we share it with our primate cousins, but because we jump from thought to thought like a monkey jumping from tree to tree. This is what the mind does when it is “at rest” or “at ease”, in other words when it has nothing better to do. Hence the term “default mode”. We daydream, we ruminate, we worry and fret. It is characterized by self-concern, and as such has some clear evolutionary survival value. We do need to evaluate the past and project and plan the future. We need to think about our self-image and reputation and those of significant others in our personal and professional lives. That’s all normal and necessary. But, unfortunately, it can get out of hand.
If the default mode network is over-active, it begins to interfere with the activity-focused networks. We find it hard to concentrate and to perform tasks efficiently and creatively. Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) are neurologically characterized by the inability to inhibit the default mode network. Conversely, highly focused and creative people can silence the “blah blah blah” for extended periods of time. They can engage fully in a task to the point of being completely lost in it – they can enter “the flow”. Think of Mozart composing a symphony. Think of the last time you were “lost in music”. Where was your “default mode” then?
So the ability to systematically inhibit and even completely deactivate the default mode network is clearly an extremely useful thing to be able to do. Even if it comes back (and it always comes back), taking a brief holiday from it has well documented mental and physical health benefits. Meditation is one of the best ways to effect this deactivation or inhibition of the “default mode network”. Prayer, fasting, ecstatic dance and psychedelic drugs are some others.
If you’ve ever tried to teach a class of rowdy children anything, you will know how difficult it is to get through to them. This is why discipline is so important. Only once you have a quiet, attentive classroom environment can any real learning take place. The same is true of our unruly minds. We can still process information with the default mode network rumbling away in the background, but nothing sinks in at a deeper level.
On the other hand, when the mind is perfectly still and quiet, new insights strike us with the force of revelation. We “get it” at a deeper level than the surface “blah blah blah”. Imagine you’re reading a poem, say T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. When the mind is quiet, the words touch you with a deep sense of meaning and beauty. When the mind is agitated and distracted, it’s all just a jumble of words.
The holy mushroom ceremony opens with a mantra meditation. This helps establish a conducive set and setting. However, it is a mistake to imagine that the meditation is just an “intro” to the psychedelic experience. The meditation doesn’t end when the mantra ends, it deepens.
In a ceremonial context, in contrast to a recreational or even therapeutic context, the whole trip from beginning to end is a meditation. The mantra meditation is followed by a silent meditation and a music meditation. Under the influence, silence is not silence and music is not music, but they are both deep meditations.
The music meditation is at the heart of the experience, when the mushroom is at its peak. We traverse many dimensions of space, time, mood, texture, harmony, dissonance, colour, form, meaning, meaninglessness, movement, stillness and intensity. It is a multi-dimensional meditation.
This is followed by a dub reggae movement meditation, which is only possible once the intensity has abated sufficiently to permit coordinated physical movement, balance and rhythm. At this stage of the proceedings, we have the opportunity to express ourselves in embodied thanks and praise, celebration and communion.
The ceremony concludes with a walking meditation in nature and a shared meal of soup and bread, where participants share their experiences in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere. Maintaining a mindful state of meditative awareness even in this post trip “after party” invariably makes for more creative, constructive and enjoyable conversations and is an excellent training in applying meditation to everyday social life.
If forgetfulness descends at any point during the trip, particularly at its peak, and you are left wondering what’s going on and what you’re doing here, let the recollection of these simple words bring you back on track: this is a mushroom meditation.
“Mal Viaje” and “Nada”
When embarking on a psychedelic journey, the two things you want to avoid at all costs are “Mal Viaje” (a bad trip) and “Nada” (nothing). Especially if this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience or a once-in-a-longtime experience, you really don’t want to be left frightened and confused or disappointed and deflated.
Why do we have bad trips and no trips? Sometimes the fault is with us, sometimes with the mushroom and sometimes with the environment we take it in. If we are highly-strung, have a controlling personality, and find it difficult to relax and go with the flow, we are much more likely to have a bad trip. If we are in a bad mood or feeling anxious or suspicious, the likelihood is even higher.
This is the “set” part of “set and setting”. You should come to the experience with a good mindset, that its, with a positive attitude of openness, curiosity, trust and respect. You should also have a stable enough personality, without any of the obvious contra-indications, such as a history of psychotic breakdown. Ideally, you should not be an overly obsessive or controlling person.
The “setting” part is also important. You should be taking it in a safe and supportive environment with people you trust, ideally with an experienced guide. You should feel comfortable and confident in the knowledge that if you completely let go of the reins, you will be held, and that whatever happens, it will be contained, and things won’t spin out of control.
Apart from “set and setting”, the main contributing factor to the resulting experience is the psychedelic compound itself. It depends on the quality and quantity: you want the good stuff at the right dosage. Too little and you might have little more than a threshold experience or absolutely “Nada”; too much and you might have an overwhelmingly intense experience that careers off into a “Mal Viaje”.
However, it is often our own psychological resistances which block the working of the mushroom, and keep a potentially beautiful mild to medium experience at the threshold level. Similarly, it is our own psychological resistances which can derail a potentially profound strong or heroic experience and change it into a nightmarish one.
We are in continuous intimate dialogue and communion with the mushroom, whether it seems barely perceptible on the mushroom side or out of control on our side. The sacred dance is on, no matter what. And the trip isn’t over until it’s over.
In fact, with experience, we find that there really is no such thing as “Nada” or “Mal Viaje”. Gnosis can be found in any and all conditions, and sometimes we need to be reminded that we don’t always get what we want and that we must make the best of what we are given. But to get something of value from any experience, what we really need is faith (Pistis) and mindfulness (Kenosis).
Please Don’t Worry
Please don’t worry if you can’t think straight when you’re high on magic mushrooms. Don’t worry if you can’t recall certain details about your life, or if you can’t remember why you are there or what you’re meant to be doing. Don’t worry if your mind is scrambled and you can’t follow a line of reasoning further than a couple of steps before you forget what it was you were thinking about. Don’t worry if you can’t work it out, or if you can’t work anything out. Don’t worry if nothing seems to make sense.
You’re tripping. You’re fucked. The normal functioning of your mind is impaired. Certain parts of your brain have been temporarily knocked out, are under a kind of neuronal anaesthetic. Your left hemisphere in particular, as well as your default mode network, are in suspended animation. This is not the time to talk to your boss about this year’s performance figures and the possibility of promotion.
Please don’t worry about it! It’s completely normal. You are in a temporary altered state of consciousness. It will pass. Your logical, rational faculties will return. You’re not going mad. You’re on drugs, remember?
There’s nothing you need to do, nothing you need to solve, nothing you need to worry about. You are in a safe place with people you can trust for the sole purpose of journeying deep into the heart of your very being, consciousness and bliss, deeper than you ever thought was possible.
But first you need to stop worrying, otherwise you won’t go anywhere but round and round the windmills of your mind. Mind loops can be entertaining as well as infuriating, exhausting and nightmarish. But this is not what sacred psychoactive plant medicines are for. This is not what shamanic journeying is about. This is “tripping” in the popular sense, but only because people in the West don’t know how magic carpets work. Don’t stress yourself trying to decipher the patterns. Break through the discursive mind. Learn to fly.
And please don’t worry – everything is out of control!
Follow the Music
In a holy mushroom ceremony the peak of the experience takes place lying down with eyes closed (and optional eye shades) listening to music. It is a kind of musical meditation. Except that on a medium to high dose, this is no ordinary listening, no ordinary music and no ordinary meditation.
Synaesthesia (the experience of sounds in the form of visual shapes and colours for example) is very common. Also fairly common is an intense synaesthesia where you are fully immersed in a multi-sensory soundscape. It feels as though you are inside the music, experienced as a tangible manifestation of the mushroom in breath-taking psychedelic glory, constantly morphing into spectacular new sound worlds.
The peak experience is an inner journey into another dimension. If you sit up and open your eyes, the spell is broken and the magic evaporates. The amazing thing about magic mushrooms is that you can pass easily between the inner psychedelic world and the outer physical world. If you need the toilet or a drink of water, you can come out of the other world, get up and do what you need to do, and then go straight back into it. There are still trace psychedelic effects with eyes open, but on medium to high doses, they aren’t too distracting.
If there is anxiety, fear and confusion, discomfort, paranoia and mental chaos, we will (quite understandably) be sorely tempted to come back to the “real world”, to sit up and open our eyes, and look for security and support in our surroundings and the people we are with. If there is a guide or a shaman, we will turn to him or her for help.
The best help, however, is simple presence and encouragement, is being there with and for the distressed psychonaut, until they are ready to dive back into their inner psychedelic world. There is no antidote or magic formula. There is no way out but through.
Use the mantra. Watch and pray. Neither think nor try not to think. Neither fight nor try to surrender. Just follow the music. And enjoy the trip!
Trust and Respect
Deep transformative psychological change is possible in therapy only where there is a solid therapeutic alliance between therapist and client. And a solid therapeutic alliance is only possible where there is trust and respect.
The same is true of psychedelics. However high the dose, you won’t get very far unless you trust and respect the mushroom. And you may get badly burned.
But please remember: no matter how difficult or challenging your experience, you are developing, at the very least, strength and stamina, patience and courage.
There is no such thing as a bad trip where there is trust and respect.
Trust the holy mushroom.
Trust the process.
Trust the setting.
Trust the music.
Trust the guide.
The Art of Yin
Confident, self-assertive people in affluent Western societies like ours pride themselves on their independence and self-reliance. They know their own minds, they think for themselves, they bow to no man.
History has taught them the evils of servility in a world of sadistic, power-hungry despots and bullies. They have learnt to be wary and skeptical of all claims to authority. They are not afraid to “get up, stand up” and “fight the power”. The more rebellious among them wear their ODD diagnosis (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) as a badge of honour.
This is in fact a great and noble quality that protects them and others against all sorts of potential abuse and oppression. It finds its natural expression in social justice activism. And it is indeed essential that we protect people against the inevitable abuses of power that perennially beset our fragile democracy.
However, when it comes to spirituality, meditation and psychedelics, it can be a bit of a nuisance. Words like “surrender” and “submission” (the meaning of the word Islam), are anathema to the self-assertive, hyper-vigilant, libertarian soul. Of the three elements in the Medieval Christian monastic vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, the most repugnant is “obedience”.
As I described in my post, Relax! it is very difficult to relax at will when you have an oppositional disposition, simply because when you tell yourself to relax, you instinctively refuse. Nobody tells you what to do!
Can you submit to the mushroom? Can you submit to the mantra? Can you submit to God? Not if you have ODD. First you need to learn how to relax, accept, trust, let go, go with the flow. First you need to develop the art of passive yielding, the art of yin.
Only then will the treasure house of the immortal spirits of the faithful be opened unto you.
The Hardest Lesson
The hardest lesson and the greatest gift of the psychedelic experience is to “lose your mind and come to your senses”. This doesn’t mean that you literally have no mind (except in the Zen Buddhist sense of mu-shin) but that your centre of awareness shifts from the left brain hemisphere to the right hemisphere. If you don’t know what the significance of this is, please read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.
Left hemisphere activity is basically linguistic and rational. This is where we are when we try to make sense of the world and control it by fitting it into a system of mental concepts and categories. In many contexts, in society at large, this works fine. On psychedelics, this is a sure recipe for a bad trip.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is within”: whether you are in a blissful heavenly realm or a tormented hellish realm, you are in the spiritual dimension, the “Kingdom of Heaven”. The psychedelic vision quest is an inner spiritual journey and the battle is an inner spiritual battle. The more centred in the right hemisphere, and the more suspended the left, the better things will go for you.
As soon as your rational mind, through fear, decides to put a stop to the trip and to come out of the Kingdom, to take control, to get things back to normal, to “go home”, the cogs of left hemisphere madness begin to spin. And the more you try to control the experience, the more out of control it gets.
The classic psychedelics, ayahuasca, peyote, magic mushrooms, LSD, DMT, are powerful sacred medicines. They are spiritual, not mental, agents of self-discovery. If you allow your rational ego to take the reins, if you get up and leave your assigned position in the ceremony hall, if you break the sacred circle, you will suffer the consequences.
What you are actually doing is pulling yourself out of the sacred space of the inner “Kingdom of Heaven” and wrenching your consciousness out of right hemisphere connectedness back into the left hemisphere control, which feels safer, because more familiar. The familiar, habitual mental world system of the left hemisphere is “home”. And you want to go home. But you’re not in Kansas anymore, and there’s no going home for the duration of the trip. Either you follow the yellow brick road, or you lose your mind in the psychiatric sense.
The hardest lesson is to let go, to let go of your desire to control everything and have your way, to let go of your ego, to let go of your own little kingdom. And the greatest gift is the boundless freedom, joy and peace that this endless letting go confers on the buffeted soul.
“Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything.” (Isaac Pennington)
Energised and Relaxed
High intensity situations are experienced as stressful when the mind is ruled by the left hemisphere; low intensity situations are experienced as boring. High intensity situations are experienced as energising when the mind is ruled by the right hemisphere; low intensity situations are experienced as relaxing.
If the highly intense peak of a psychedelic journey over-stimulates the left hemisphere, causing excessive stress, worry and anxiety, you are liable to have a bad trip. If the experience is too subtle and never really gets off the ground, and the left hemisphere is under-stimulated, you are likely to have a boring trip. If you hit the sweet spot of perfect intensity, where the psychedelic porridge is neither too hot nor too cold, then even with a dominant left hemisphere, you will probably have an interesting, productive, and even enjoyable trip.
Let go. Let the intuitive right hemisphere take over. Then you will be in a win-win situation, whatever happens. High intensity, high frequency psychedelic energy will flow through you, will electrify you, will fill you with spirit and life, fire and light. You will be purged and illuminated, healed and blessed. On the other hand, a mild experience will provide the opportunity for gentle contemplation and relaxation, which can also lead to deep insights and healing.
Don’t be stressed or bored. Be energised and relaxed!
Don’t Know, Don’t Think, Don’t Worry
The crucial importance of an established meditation practice for successful psychedelic journeying is that you have come to terms with not knowing, not thinking and not worrying.
The intense, chaotic peak of the experience is designed to “break open the head”, to interrupt your habitual thought patterns, in order that you can open your mind to wider horizons and greater possibilities. The first section of the playlist is intentionally weird and difficult, which discourages the mind from making habitual associations and the feelings from making habitual value judgments.
If you are comfortable with not knowing, not thinking and not worrying, this can be a very enjoyable, fun ride. However, if you can’t let go of your habitual mind control, it can be disorienting and frightening, setting you off on a bad trip of confusion, paranoia and sticky thought loops.
One of the great benefits of meditation is that you learn how to be conscious and aware without thinking. You learn to just sit, shikan taza, to just be. You enjoy the space, the stillness and the silence that this brings. You enjoy the peace.
The mind is anxious to know, to think and to worry. It is addicted to thinking just like it is addicted to cigarettes. Take away the mental smoke and the anxiety levels begin to rise. Now you have a whole army of ants (anxious negative thoughts) to contend with.
Meditation is the gentle art of giving up thinking. It is the art of overcoming the fear, anxiety and worry associated with not knowing.
With experience, you learn that a new order always emerges out of the psychedelic chaos, that there is a natural cycle of chaos and order, emptiness and form, death and rebirth, so that with John the Divine you can say,
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away” (Revelation 21:1)
The key to the art of getting high
is abhaya, fearlessness.
Be not afraid!
But what if you suffer an attack of cosmic vertigo?
What if you discover that you’re afraid of heights?
The fact is, you are afraid.
You are afraid of losing control.
You are afraid of losing your mind.
You are afraid of dying.
These are the three great fears.
They are deep and powerful.
You can’t just ignore them.
So what to do?
What to do?
It helps to remember why you came here.
You came here to “let go and let God”,
to surrender your controlling ego.
You came here to lose your mind and come to your senses,
to silence your monkey mind,
to find the peace that passes all understanding.
You came here to “die before ye die”,
to experience ego death,
to let yourself die and be born again.
“He that loses his life for my sake shall find it.”
Be not afraid!
Your fear will tell you to make it stop.
It will tell you to get off the train,
to smash the glass and pull the emergency cord.
If you slam on the breaks,
you might derail the train,
but it won’t stop.
You are on a magical mystery tour,
you’ve got a ticket to ride,
but you’re not the one in the driver’s seat.
The train will stop
when it runs out of steam
and not a moment before.
So relax and enjoy the ride.
Everything is fine.
If you must be afraid, fear God.
Fear God, and you will fear nothing else.
The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.