The Betterment of Well People
June 08, 2018
"There's a phenomenon happening in the world today. More and more people are waking up — having real, authentic glimpses of reality. By this I mean that people seem to be having moments where they awaken out of their familiar senses of self, and out of their familiar senses of what the world is, into a much greater reality — into something far beyond anything they knew existed."
this is the start of a book i recently read. a few years ago, i might've read on for 30 more seconds before closing the book and finding a better use of my time than reading fiction masquerading as non-fiction. today, i recognize that passages like this are actually pointing to a very real and important experience.
in 2016, my friend and i found ourselves in an outdoor jacuzzi in san francisco. we had both consumed tea made with magic mushrooms, and the psilocybin was starting to hit us.
we were joined in the jacuzzi by a guy with dreadlocks who called himself a "medicine man". i asked him, "does that means you sell drugs?" he glared at me and i realized that the question, which came from a place of genuine curiosity, might have been offensive. the psilocybin wasn't exactly helping me choose my words carefully. i quickly clarified that i wasn't trying to judge and he responded that yes, he gave people mind-opening substances but that calling it "selling drugs" missed the point. the bungled interaction made me more acutely aware of just how different we were. i was an employee at a large corporation who made lots of money and was therefore successful by society's standards, and he a hippie who rejected everything i had conformed to, including how to describe a non-medical professional who supplied drugs.
the conversation turned more philosophical, and i couldn't make sense of what the medicine man kept trying to point out. "what do you mean when you say we are the same?" it couldn't have been more obvious to me that we were quite different. he offered a metaphor: "imagine that a chandelier falls to the ground and shatters into a million shards. we are those shards, believing that we are individual and separate. but in fact, we have simply forgotten that we are essentially one."
something shifted within me, and suddenly it actually started to make sense. i felt my mind resisting, trying to make sense of things logically but failing to do so. it was a deeper kind of seeing, a deeper kind of knowing, that went beyond mere intellect. it was something that had to be experienced to be known, similar to how a mere description of a sunset can never do justice to witnessing the radiant hues in the sky with your eyes. eventually, my mind stopped struggling and the insight that we were all one became blindingly obvious. i looked over at my friend and when his eyes met mine, there was simply the experience of the One recognizing the One. yes, we were in different bodies, but that seemed entirely superficial in light of the unity of all things. i saw for the first time that there was an entirely radical way of being in this life and that there are realms of consciousness where the "me" drops away. when the illusion of the self is seen through, what remains is not oblivion but pure joy and beauty.
i thought back to this incident because i just finished reading michael pollan's how to change your mind. it's a fantastic book that covers the history of psychedelics, the science behind how they work, and the ongoing research into their uses in therapy and improving well-being. it also includes pollan's firsthand exploration of psychedelics as a 60-something year old journalist who has a materialist scientific understanding of the world. i greatly appreciated this aspect of the book because his skeptical yet open way of approaching his experiences and spirituality reflects the way i tend to think as well, which is unfortunately quite uncommon in spiritual communities.
one of the recurring themes in the book is the question of how psychedelics can be used for the "betterment of well people". if clinical trials continue performing well, it seems likely that psychedelics will find medical acceptance in the treatment of depression, addiction, and anxiety. but should psychedelics also be available to people who are already well?
having benefited greatly from my own use of psychedelics, i believe the answer is a definite yes. experiencing consciousness without ego has been one of the most important experiences of my life, and it's my hope that as many people as possible can discover that reality for themselves. while meditation and other spiritual practices can also lead to the same insights and shifts in consciousness, the more hardheaded of us won't see the point of engaging in those practices until we've directly experienced what they have to offer. i certainly wouldn't have gotten into meditation had it not been for my psychedelic experiences.
that doesn't mean that i think everyone should be dropping acid. psychedelic experiences can be destabilizing enough that they're not suitable for people who struggle with mental instability. these are powerful substances, after all. even for the mentally healthy, it's worth the effort to take certain precautions such as paying close attention to "set and setting" and seeking out the help of an experienced guide, especially when experimenting for the first time or with strong doses. in that spirit, i've been taking opportunities to guide others on their psychedelic experiences. having ventured through both sublime and hellish states of consciousness, i feel fairly comfortable helping others navigate the territory. so far, i've had the chance to guide multiple sessions, and here's what they look like at a high level: the voyager (the person taking the psychedelic) lies down on a comfortable surface with eyeshades on and listens to music while i hold space for them and provide support whenever needed. i'm not on a psychedelic myself, and my role is simply to create a safe container for the voyager to explore freely.
as special as taking psychedelics in nature or interacting with others in a group setting can be, i've found this particular setup to be invaluable. by removing all inputs except for music, the voyager is encouraged to dive deeply into their own psyche without needing to worry about other people, their environment, or other unexpected distractions. here is also where having a guide can become very important. when you start navigating the depths of your mind, you can quickly run into dark and terrifying areas. knowing that you have a guide whose sole purpose is to support you can make it a lot easier to let go and face your fears.
i've found that there are very few things more gratifying than guiding someone through the experience of ego death and having them come out to tell you that it was the best experience of their life. to witness someone experience consciousness without ego is to witness a profound awakening in their relationship to the world, other people, and most importantly, themselves.
if you've never tried psychedelics, you owe it to yourself to at least read michael pollan's book and sam harris's essay . if you take the plunge, you'll find that these substances might not just change your mind — they might change your life.
if you want to read more of my experiences, here are some reflections i wrote after significant psychedelic experiences: