I never imagined my first acid trip would begin with chopping up pineapples and melons into Tupperware, along with mixes of raspberries, blueberries and nuts, stirring cacao nibs into pots of coconut yoghurt and squeezing everything into rucksacks, along with water, juice and vegan chocolate bars.
“Oh yes,” said my friend Alex, “this is the cleanest trip you’ll ever have. Out in nature, feeling, tasting, touching her.”
In the psychedelic healing world, session facilitators talk about the importance of ‘set and setting’, a phrase coined by Harvard psychologist and psychedelics advocate Timothy Leary in the Sixties, to describe the mindset with which you approach taking a psychedelic and the context in which you journey.
Broadly, set describes how well-prepared you are personally. At the physical level, for example, not being on any other substances, including alcohol, or potentially contra-indicated medications, and the quality of your diet, indicating how well you resource your body; mentally, it can include a lack of any history of psychosis, which can be badly triggered by psychedelics, and how well informed you are about the substance you’ll be taking; and emotionally, it means considering the support infrastructure you have around you — family, friends, community, therapist, grounding practices like meditation — to lean on should difficult material arise.
Setting describes where you’re doing it and who you will be with. Does it feel warm, safe and will your needs be met? How experienced is your guide or are your companions? Generally speaking, if you’ve laid the groundwork beforehand, and are confident that you are in good hands in comfortable surroundings, you’re more likely to be able to surrender to the experience and it is more likely to be rewarding, even if it is, at times, challenging.
I had met Alex a year previously at an ayahuasca workshop in Peru. We had seen each other at our most vulnerable and broken down. We had taken turns holding each other as we sobbed out what we’d gone there to confront. We had seen each other vomit — a lot. And we had laughed at crazy-beautiful life, and all the ways in which it seemed to keep pulling our pants down when we weren’t looking. A couple of months later, we had both gone through lockdown alone, him in Germany, me in London, and had been on the end of Facetime, WhatsApp or Zoom to handhold each other through our murkiest moments. We know each other’s worst, and believe in each other’s best, and I trust him implicitly.
Alex and his best friend, Andy, are veterans of LSD. Andy in particular, having used it to pull himself up out of the darkest time of his life. His business had failed. He was facing bankruptcy. All around him, friends were in good jobs, putting away savings, getting married, having kids — they seemed to have it all figured out. He, meanwhile, had no money, no partner, no desire to get dressed in the morning; had nothing other than an overwhelming anxiety that further failure lay ahead. Determined to try and turn things around, he poured over psychology texts at the library, searching for clues. He tried meditation, time off, talking therapy, reading, positive thinking, affirmations. Nothing worked.
Then he started researching LSD. For a while, stories of bad trips put him off trying it. But something outweighed the trepidation. With Post-It notes placed meticulously throughout his apartment saying, ‘you’re just tripping,’ he took 100 micrograms. He details what happened during his interview for Alex’s podcast, Journeys, which explores the potential of psychedelics as an emergent mental health tool through the experiences of German and English-speaking guests. But in essence, in the wake of that single dose, he unfroze, started a consulting business and within nine months managed to become debt free. Along the full spectrum of human emotions, he’d been slumped against a kind of glass ceiling, joy and pride and love and creativity and awe and excitement inaccessible beyond. LSD shattered the glass. It also helped him transcend self-awareness and see things as they were, not as a projection of his own story. He got an eagle-eyed view of his life — the pain, the suffering — and realised: that’s stuff that’s happening; it’s not me. He has worked with LSD many times since, as a support to personal growth.
So, with these two at my side, and a vast expanse of German countryside waiting to receive us beyond the front door, lit up by late autumn sunshine, I felt confident in my setting, to say the least. And as for set, my experiences working with ayahuasca and, more recently, magic mushrooms, had taught me reverence for the power of psychedelics. I felt well-informed; I felt grounded, thanks to my daily yoga and meditation practice; and I felt safe.
However, I was not the only first-timer on this adventure. Two more of their friends joined us — another Alex, giant and gentle but the most cautious among us, having previously suffered a very bad trip on a mix of other psychedelics and alcohol. He had been facing his demons for many months, weighed down by fear and some tough choices around where he wanted his life to head. He wanted to try LSD as a means to remember how to touch lightness again, to touch joy. He took 25 micrograms. And there was Caroline, who had already been making changes to her way of living after suffering severe burnout. She had never taken any psychedelics before, but she had an absolute knowing that LSD had something important to show her. She was as excited as a child heading into the first Christmas it is old enough to understand; she took 50 micrograms.
Why did I want to try LSD?
Curiosity, I can’t deny. But more than that, I wanted to continue to reinforce a profound sense of connectedness to nature and all things that I had first experienced as an embodied truth working with ayahuasca almost exactly a year previously. This would be my first time taking a psychedelic ‘recreationally’ rather than in a healing context, lying in a darkened, facilitated space, though to me it folded into the same work. I had travelled deep within myself, my pain and my familial trauma with the help of ayahuasca and mushrooms. Here, rather like Alex, I wanted to touch lightness. I hoped to lose myself, somehow — or perhaps I should say find myself — in the beauty of creation; to experience my self as a part of that beauty, and pull it back within to carry always.
Comfortable clothes and walking boots on and rucksacks loaded up by the door, we were ready. We sat in a circle and, one after the other, described how we were feeling and our intentions for the experience ahead of us. In so many words, we all hovered around the same thing: trust and surrender. I fidgeted a little nervously — respectful butterflies, I call them, flicking the edges of my stomach — but once that little square of paper infused with 100 micrograms of LSD was in my mouth, dissolving under my tongue, I felt only child-like excitement. As we wandered towards the hills, winding between ancient apple trees clinging to their last fruits like priceless rubies, I wondered what new worlds this would open up to me.
LSD,” Alex had said to me some time ago, “is kind of an outward experience, when not taken in a therapeutic setting with eyeshades on — very expansive. MDMA is extremely heart-opening, drawing you within, whether you take it on your own therapeutically or connected with others, for example at a festival, and as you know ayahuasca too can feel very inward and embodied, whereas LSD is more of a sensual and intellectual opening to all of existence, our universe and the cosmos. Suddenly you understand the workings of everything, its interconnectedness, and the instinct is to want to reach out and touch it all. For me, the best place to be when this is happening is immersed in the beauty of nature.”
Within half an hour, the top layer of my skin felt hyper-sensitive, my jaw loosened. My feet did what they were told to do, but with an increasing delay after receiving the transmissions, my mind beginning to drift in multiple directions, tugged on by an expanded sensuality. We began to climb up rocky trails. My legs became looser and lighter, so that I had to concentrate hard on the ground as I placed one foot carefully in front of the other. Except that the ground wasn’t still, so I couldn’t completely trust my placement. If I turned my head or shifted my gaze, my brain took a moment to register the change, jerking my awareness to the next scene like stop-motion animation. The world ceased to be composed of fixed objects around which I could orientate myself and instead rippled and glitched, my eyesight shimmering around the edges, warping anything I rested my eyes on for any length of time.
My breath became deeper and faster, though how much of that was the LSD and how much of it the hike I couldn’t isolate. I said I would need to stop and rest soon, wanting to surrender both to gravity, as my muscles became less and less dependable, and a kind of rushing comparable to the endorphin high of an intense workout; almost too much, and yet you want more, doped up on your own force of existence. It shook out my cells like trillions of dusty little doormats, and all I wanted to do was lie down and receive.
We soon arrived at a small clearing at the crest of the hill, carpeted with soft grass and edged with the spidery lace of autumn woods, bare branches and brambles, the sun leaning over the tops of the trees to shine specifically down on us, spotlighting our very own Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those among us who’d taken a lower dose and were more present spread blankets on the ground and we collapsed in a heap, kicked off our shoes and laughed, about everything and nothing. Time splintered around us like raindrops and then evaporated completely; gone — irrelevant. Moments stretched and yawned and wrapped themselves around each other. And I didn’t care who or what or where I was, because it was as irrelevant as time. I was alive, like everything else around me, and that was all that mattered.
I lay on the ground for what seemed an eternity, my face and body pressed against the blanket, unable to keep entirely still in my womb of warm light because it felt as though my whole body was suspended in a rolling state of orgasm. That almost unbearable, silvery, ticklish hyper-sensitivity that hovers somewhere at the border between pleasure and discomfort, something needing to be discharged. Something that pinned the corners of my mouth upwards into a smile. Out of a womb of darkness comes a being totally innocent and ignorant of the world, unimpacted, like freshly fallen snow before footprints. A womb of light — this psychedelic womb of light — was re-birthing one that sees, for the first time, every individual snowflake they’ve been walking over, and how perfect it is, and how deliberate and intelligent and precious.
When — gathering what capacity to concentrate I had left — I got up to go and pee in a bush, still able to tie my shoelaces, walk and pull my pants up and down by myself, I stopped and stared. Up off the blanket, eyes level again with our surroundings, I became aware that I could see it all… breathing. There was a clear expansion and contraction. With every ‘inhale’, the ground swelled, the woods parted, and trails of light lit up across the grass where the sunbeams, reaching between the trees, touched the tip of each blade. With every ‘exhale’, a flattening and contraction, the beams obscured once more as the trees pulled back together, the beads of light falling dark. Autumn painted everything in shades of red, orange and pink, with tiny dabs of yellow where leaves still held on to increasingly naked trees, their branches and the low scrub around their trunks underpinning everything with brusque charcoal strokes. The colours leached into the light like spilt inks, so that everything glowed a kind of amber. Every time I went to pee, I stopped to breathe awhile with the forest, its light show rising and falling in time with the rhythm of my own chest.
Back on our blanket, Alex pressed a dead leaf into my palm: “Feel this,” he said. I ran my fingers over its brown, veiny, speckled surface and laughed.“Velvet! It feels like velvet!”
What a leaf! I briefly wondered why a dead leaf should feel like velvet, and then let go of the thought. I didn’t care. It existed, and that was enough. I held onto that leaf for hours, this tiny, strange miracle, and then asked Alex to put it somewhere safe for me so that I could keep it forever and ever and ever.
Then someone opened my tingling palm and placed a raspberry in it. As delicately as I could manage, I parted its flesh, and gazed as the neat rows of deep pink bubbles bulged into each other, the whole berry pulsing like a tiny heart, pumping its life into the air. Some other part of my brain darted in with a thought: there’s something so internal about it, like the lining of the gullet of some creature that would have tried to eat Luke Skywalker on an alien planet. I followed this for a while down a thought-trail that meandered around an image of George Lucas, tripping on LSD, having visions that stitched together Star Wars and the kaleidoscope of creatures and worlds it released into our collective imagination. But then I put the raspberry in my mouth and the image evaporated as sweetness and sourness and raspberry-ness soaked my world, the circuits of my senses crackling against the inside of my head. Those of us new to LSD sat wide-eyed and fizzing, while the others sparkled with delight, proud doulas of changed minds.
“Anyone for pineapple…?” someone asked.
I said very little as I lay in a kind of ecstatic, molten wonder, perception liquified around me; but I do remember speaking aloud one clear thought, all my wits could manage.
“I can see physics…happening,” I offered to no-one in particular, having opened my eyes at what must have been the peak of the experience to see what appeared to be light-thin threads wrapped around and between everything else and us, so that nothing existed in isolation; a web of umbilicuses linking all, visible matter, or energy, it seemed, where my brain would usually register only…absence. I think someone managed a drowsy ‘nice’; nobody seemed at all surprised.
When Albert Hoffmann — the man who first synthesised and ingested LSD — downed a generous 250 micrograms of his creation and disappeared into some other dimension on his now-famous Bicycle Day in April 1943, someone told his wife, who had been away in Lucerne, that she must hurry home because he was experiencing some kind of mysterious breakdown. That’s not how I felt (though admittedly I’d taken less than half his dose) but perhaps it could be seen as analogous to a temporary breakdown. As though, in the motherboard of our brains, the rigid circuits and junctions soldered by our childhoods, the way we were parented and educated and the norms and expectations we absorbed from our societies, melt, our self-awareness, and much of what we thought was certain, dissolving for a while.
And in fact, research led by Imperial College London, in which people’s brains were scanned whilst under the influence of LSD, seems to support the idea that it has the capacity to topple, for up to 12 hours, the cognitive architecture with which, over the years, we painstakingly construct our sense of `I’ (similar effects have been observed with psilocybin). This `I’ infrastructure, a group of interacting brain regions which has been called the Default Mode Network, is believed to help our unusually big brains filter the bewildering mass of sensory and cognitive input they are deluged with millisecond by millisecond through the prism of a constructed self, with all its wants and needs, its past experiences and visions for the future, prioritising the information that is most relevant to that self’s individual survival and success. It instils an order from disorder, but at the expense of all sorts of other possible dimensions and directions of thought.
With the DFM suppressed, the ego recedes into the background and previously inaccessible corners of our subconscious rise to the surface, bringing with them new insight. This seems to create an opportunity for the penetration of new ideas, concepts and ways of perceiving the world and our lives. New neural bridges are thrown up that suddenly unite previously distant sides of grey-matter chasms. Out of entropy can come a new world order, rather like a random genetic mutation that enables a species to colonise a new ecological niche. A sort of mental Control-Alt-Delete, I suppose.
Certainly, for me (according to my journal entries following the trip), this not caring who, what or why I was, only that I lived, and lived in this incomprehensibly beautiful world capable of light and leaves and laughter, felt like freedom. Deliverance from my existential squabbles with myself. I left my regrets about the past and my projections of the future somewhere down there, below. I had a sense that who I am is not a string of words but a feeling, and that feeling — ever-present, under the noise — existed only in the now, our only true reality.
I can’t speak to the experiences of the others; those are their stories to tell. But Alex’s energy seemed lighter, somehow, his anxiety lifted, while Caroline wore an expression throughout that implied there might be a troupe of dancing unicorns putting on a private show for her. I later learned that the experience had confirmed something she already suspected but had never felt as truth in an embodied way: that there is something more, something greater — this is not ‘it’.
The sun began to sink below the treetops, and we shivered. Time to leave. Alex checked his watch: “How long do you think we’ve been out here?” he asked.
We collectively shrugged.
“Three hours. Only three hours from the moment we stepped outside the house. We’re not even a quarter of the way through the trip. We’ve got around eight hours to go.”
Minds blown. Again. It was a day of blown minds. We gathered up the pieces of our selves, and our little settlement, and made our way carefully back down the hill through the amber woods, a sharp breeze seeming to toss waves of yellowy glitter about every time it ruffled the remaining leaves. When we eventually stepped out of the tree-line, the landscape opened out before us, the valley below a series of velvety-green folds, above it, wind turbines seeming frozen in mid-stride across hilltops in every direction; all so vast I was sure I could see the curvature of the Earth. And this time, it was whole hillsides I could see breathing, great flanks heaving like the bellows of the planet. Once again, the fingers of light thrown out by the setting sun flowed towards me and then receded, sheep and cows grazing in fields rising and falling too, totally unperturbed. Whatever we were individually seeing, we sat down as one to take it all in, silent, gazing across the eternity of this unmissable present.
We stayed there a long while — or so it felt, what do I know? Then headed back to the house, where an open fire, back-to-back episodes of Our Planet and more time suspended cosily in each other’s company awaited us.
So, what new world opened up to me? None. Same world, different onlooker for a few hours. I shed my filters and opened up to new dimensions, infinite possibilities. That’s all.
The visions I had on LSD may be temporary, but the awe and insight that they are capable of inspiring is not. They were an iridescent 12-hour reminder to me that the capacity to exist in the here and now, with all it can offer us, is a gift. That simply existing is a gift. I must do it more.