Toward a more functional approach to hallucinogens

Is Wonderland outside Alice’s mind or in? Who cares.

Though I haven’t taken them in a decade, and have no plans to take them in the future, I’m a massively pro-hallucinogen guy. In fact, I think if you haven’t eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms once, you a) can’t really understand this life, and b) can’t really live this life fully. I believe that literally and with commitment. I don’t usually tell this to people who haven’t eaten mushrooms (unless they’re extremely open minded) because people don’t like to be told they’re doing this life wrong..but I believe, absolutely, that if you don’t try hallucinogens once, you’re doing this life wrong.

Why? Because hallucinogens show you, clearly, how arbitrary our particular consciousness is. DMT is already in the brain. The active chemical mushrooms break down to, in your stomach, is a molecule one atom different than a molecule that’s already in your brain. It may be that with slightly different chemicals in their brains, frogs (for instance) are “tripping” all the time. Our consciousness is not the only way to be. Hallucinogens show you this, and I think it’s a critical and humbling lesson for a conscious being to learn.

Secondly, each hallucinogen seems to have its own message to give us. This is very weird, but mushrooms consistently express the idea “we are one” to people who eat them. I have Tweeted that I think if everyone on the planet did mushrooms one time, all war would end. I stand by this. Mushrooms’ powerful we are one message lasts long after your mushroom trip is over. It’s impossible, once you’ve tripped on them intentionally, to ever see us all (the planet, the universe, and everything contained within) as anything but one organism feeding into and out of itself nutritionally, informationally, and in every other way. People consistently have visions of [things like] octopus creatures where every mouth feeds from every arm and every arm feeds every mouth. Ideas like that, when applied to humanity, the rest of nature, and our planet, do not lend themselves to war or the rape of the Earth and its inhabitants.

Both ayahuasca and salvia users report connecting with beings who say “We’ve been waiting for you.” (!!) Then the beings, which sometimes self-regenerate like an endless deck of cards, welcome you to come with them and the user gets the distinct feeling that if they accept this invitation, they will not return to the time and place where they started the trip. Next time, they say, I’m going to go with them. These chemicals cause the user to feel connected to a Mother Earth spirit. They make you think that there is a human spirit—a soul—that we are not just our body, and that it is not only possible but easy and natural to connect with deep and silly gods who are always close by and ready to catch us when we fall. Of course, everyone has different experiences—these are just my loose amalgamations from stories I have heard of people who have tried ingesting these plants—I have not.

Let’s move away from “drugs” for a moment. Of course the brain is flush with drugs and esoteric neural structures which produce them, contain them, and communicate with them. Some configurations of brain drugs and neural structures make one “mentally ill.” For example, I have been diagnosed as having bipolar-type schizoaffective disorder. That’s like having a mania-heavy bipolar disorder and schizophrenia at the same time. And part of the experience of both those conditions is hallucination. People with bipolar disorder, during mania, specifically hallucinate religious ideas. Even atheists, during bipolar mania, think they are Jesus (or whatever deity is pervasive in their culture). The psychosis (delusions and hallucinations) of bipolar mania is oriented around thinking you can save the world. People in this state think they are God, or they are talking to God, or they somehow have to save the world. They come up with ideas of how to save humanity, and feel the need to express these ideas to everybody. People with bipolar mania also commonly feel like their loved ones are trying to kill them. They experience a wide variety of other hallucinations and delusions—I am only cataloging the most common. But when someone walks into an ER thinking they’re Jesus—believe me—the staff knows with high certainty right away they’re dealing with a bipolar patient.

Now let me critique Terence McKenna for a second. Terence McKenna is a genius—far more than I. I love Terence McKenna and almost everything I have ever read or heard of his thinking. He is truly a brilliant, visionary, extraordinary thinker. So why would little old me critique him? Only in a friendly way, clearly. According to Wikipedia:

McKenna put forward a hypothesis contending that the ingestion of the psychedelic mushroom Psilocybe cubensis was one of the main transformative factors, and catalytic, in the early evolution of consciousness in Homo sapiens.

He even stresses the importance of my favorite hallucinogenic state—how could I critique him? He was also influenced by Aldous Huxley, who wrote the key dystopian novel and chose to go out tripping on LSD.

But where I want to be able to talk to McKenna is in response to his descriptions of ayahuasca experiences he had when he was older than I am now. He—I feel—as Woody Allen’s Ike character says he does of New York City in the opening of the movie Manhattan, “romanticize[s] it all out of proportion.” I haven’t done ayahuasca, or taken ayahuasca trips, or partaken of the sacred brew, or however you want to call it. And a brew that puts you in touch with Mother Earth spirit must be special. People who have tried many types of hallucinogens generally agree that ayahuasca is the most profound. But the way McKenna talks about his ayahuasca experiences, I feel he buys in, too much, to the reality of the experience.

Now here we’re in dicey territory.

Because what you experience is always real.

If you experience it, by definition it is your reality.

And the idea that Mother Earth spirit has decided to communicate with us, not through a booming voice from above, but through our co-creatures the plants, is to me not only plausible but so beautiful that its beauty lends credibility to its possible truth. Can a plant be a vehicle for allowing us to talk to god? That seems reasonable to me. Is DMT a divine molecule which is a gateway between the “physical” and “spiritual” realms? That seems reasonable to me. Is ayahuasca a way to talk to the spirit of the Earth? Maybe.

But consider this. The we are one idea that comes from spiritually intentional use of hallucinogenic mushrooms is profound, it is true. But that doesn’t mean that the hallucination is real (is true). It may be that there are gateways into worlds that aren’t any more real than this one, but which contain truths that aren’t obvious to us here. Like learning something valuable from a dream, even if the dream isn’t real. Like being Alice, and going down the rabbit hole, and finding knowledge there that you can take with you and use the rest of your life, even if the rabbit hole never existed—even as much as “reality” does. I am not saying that I think ayahuasca does not concretely put us in touch with a Mother Earth spirit—it may. What I am saying is it doesn’t need to in order to be valuable. Ayahuasca, other hallucinogens, manic psychosis..these may be more like fake places that contain real experiences than real places that contain real experiences.

What is fake? What is real? The rabbit hole was real to Alice. People’s ayahuasca experiences are real to them—they may be real in a larger sense than that. But let’s remember that regardless of where we “really” travel in hallucinogenic experiences, those experiences—like all experiences—are fundamentally journeys within. When I’ve done LSD, it is clear to me that the drug is showing me how my mind works—it is a journey around my own mind. That’s why you want to be careful what state your spirit is in before doing may or may not like (or be able to handle) what you find when you look within. Maybe ayahuasca lets us look within to see the Earth spirit within us. Maybe mushrooms’ we are one knowledge is our own ancient knowledge which we have forgotten..which mushrooms help us remember.

Increasingly, I am open to the idea that plants and our brains, working together, may be interdimensional vehicles. We tend to think of these as individual objects: the plant, the brain. They are separate, right? Why? We grew up together on the same planet. We are hardly separate beings. We are one. Me eating a plant from the surface of the earth is kind of like me touching my own ear—we’re part of the same body and we are interacting with ourself. I can change my state massively by interacting with my body through meditation, masturbation, massage. What is the difference between that and massaging my mind by eating a hallucinogenic plant? Is it so far-fetched that some creator or creation process put us here alongside plants which pair with our minds to help our evolution, as McKenna says, or which actually put us in touch with beings or logic from other dimensions? I don’t think so.

But I think we need to get rid of our ideas of locality of experience and distinction (from us) of beings we encounter on our trips. Does DMT really let our consciousness travel? Is Mother Earth spirit out there or in here? I kinda don’t think it matters. Wonderland is real to Alice. What she learns there and what she takes back with her is real. But is the caterpillar its own being or part of Alice? Is Wonderland outside Alice’s mind or in? Who cares. The important thing is not whether our journeys are real, but the importance of the things we bring back with us when we go.