Updated: Feb 16
Currently in the midst of a rebranding following their messy heyday in the 60’s, psychedelics are no longer associated solely with counter-culture and dropping out.
Steadily gaining respectability, they will, soon enough, be granted a new legal status.
On the whole, I think this is good news for society and should be celebrated. Most naturally occurring psychedelics, although psychologically challenging, have very low toxicity levels. In other words, your body likes them! They certainly do not belong in the same category as other recreational drugs, and can support mental and physical well-being, if used with care.
As the mental health fields prepare for what will soon be a whole host of new modalities centred around psychedelics, and other promising drugs such as MDMA and Ketamine, I want to explore the potential benefits and pitfalls of using these substances.
Current research on the use of psilocybin (the active compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms) to treat depression and alleviate anxiety in terminally ill cancer patients is extremely positive. Reported benefits are deep and long lasting, with a significant number of research participants reporting the experience to be amongst the most profound of their lives. For the uninitiated, psychedelic substances are usually characterized as producing only deceptive visions and hallucinations, so their ability to reduce the fear of death is particularly significant and interesting. How they do this will be the subtext of this essay. It is a gross understatement to say that psychedelics are powerful. To those who have not used them, there really is no way to communicate just how mind-expansive they can be. Generally, such expansive states are reached only after a difficult, and emotionally turbulent ascent through layers of egoic defences and their emotional drivers. The trick, for the budding explorer, is to surrender to this deconstructive process. Easier said than done.
The analogy of Plato’s cave is a good one here. Imagine your ordinary perceptions of reality being akin to living inside a small, dark cave, and the psychedelic experience (at least with the right dose in the appropriate setting) as the infinite universe beyond the cave. This might give you some sense of their reality-breaking effects. It will still be an idea, however, and not the actual experience of waking up to the humbling realization and perception of infinity. Sounds like fun, right? Not so fast. Although you might feel like this is an experience you’d want to have, and to some degree I think you'd be right, it is certainly a double-edged sword. Psychedelics are one of very few methods for inducing a reliable mystical experience. They can open one’s mind to the possibility of transcending our normal human limits, our negativity and self-concern. They can give us a glimpse of our ideal self; a self that is clear and quick of mind, with grounded self-confidence and a compassionate heart. The caveat, however, is that this sword cuts both ways. Psychedelics can also open the door to our shadow, reducing us to the consciousness of a terrified animal as we witness the capacity of the human mind to project its darkness outward. This is bad trip territory.
Obviously, this can be traumatizing for anyone, but especially so for people who have not yet developed the strength of self to face unconscious and split-off parts of the psyche. In such cases, temporary psychotic breaks, although very rare, can happen. As the depths of the psyche are revealed, its darker aspects are intolerable and cannot be integrated with the ego-self. Instead, they are denied and attributed to outside forces which become persecuting. This results in the paranoid fantasies of the psychotic individual.
While it's certainly important to be honest and transparent about potential negative side-effects, it's equally important to note that these can largely be mitigated with proper forethought and psychiatric screening tools.
Alternatively, in the event of a profoundly positive experience, this too can prove destabilizing as the expansive dimensions of the psyche do not appreciate the demands of our ordinary human reality. In these cases, glimpses of our boundless nature can undermine the natural trajectory of development as we seek to establish ourselves as an independent force in the world. Revelations of this nature propel us forward to the premature fulfilment of human desire and ambition.
In realizing our boundless nature, we also understand it to be the secret goal of human striving. A striving that is really the longing for our true selves. This, of course, is a positive experience and assuages all kinds of existential fears around death, meaning, and isolation, but it can also deflate the necessary drives of the ego, without which we will struggle to gain traction in the ordinary world of vocation and relationships. You might feel this to be preferable as such drives frequently take distorted and destructive forms. I have sympathy with that view, but they also provide us with the fuel we need to leave the orbit of our family systems in the natural course of development.
Furthermore, such revelations can alienate us from friends and family as we yearn to share the ineffable with those we are closest to. In the worst cases, this can result in a kind of narcissistic grandiosity where the ego identifies with the expansive states of mind revealed, ironically, in its absence. Psychedelic substances overpower our normal defences against encountering both the ambiguous depths of the psyche, and our suppressed and ungrieved traumas. They reduce the filtering capacity of the brain as we become conscious of things that usually stay safely below the level of normal awareness in the service of our survival needs. Recent research using fMRI scans of human brains under the influence of psilocybin show an unexpected decrease of activity in the brain, specifically in the default mode network* - a global brain structure that is believed to be responsible for executive functions such as the ego. Aldous Huxley was clearly ahead of his time in 1954 when he hypothesized the brain to be a 'reducing valve' for consciousness, as opposed to the generator of consciousness.
A definition of human development that I personally like conceives of it as a progressive enlargement and emptying of our sense of self so that it can contain the depth and breadth of the psyche. In other words, it is about making the unconscious conscious. This is a process without end, and one that psychedelics temporarily super-charge.
With these disclaimers out of the way, I am an advocate for the wise use of psychedelics. Wise in this context means, at the very least, used in a supportive environment with people you trust. At a time when you are feeling positive and in good physical health, and free of responsibility. Ideally, you would have the support of trained professionals, and be using them in a space that is sympathetic to mystical revelation without the need to explain it away in terms of pathology, a la Freud. This is where therapy can be an ally for you, if you wish to explore these substances. It can be a space where the insights, revelations and uncovered historical trauma can be shared, processed, and integrated in a way that serves your continued growth. If you’re like me, their gift to you will be what they reveal to you about your true nature beneath the confusion of the separate ego-self. The revelation of your own soul will propel you forward into a life-long commitment to embody and manifest it in the world.