Psychedelics and the End, or Beginning, of Me
At 24 years old, my father stood on the banks of India’s Ganges river, passport in hand. With trembling grip, he nearly threw it in, his identity along with it, to live out his days nameless and broke, meditating and seeking God.
In a way, I suppose I was conceived in that peculiar moment, when he reigned in his shaking hand, pocketed his passport, and returned to face the American milieu he, like so many existentially fraught hippies, left.
His search didn’t end there — it still hasn’t — which endowed me with a funky childhood. Still, I did the usual things: soccer practice, girlfriends, and parties. I went to college with the usual question of relatively privileged humans for whom the traditional purpose of survival no longer commandeers consciousness: what should I do with my life? It’s a dazzling question. It looms large, hovering above like a barely-visible mountaintop, casting its shadow upon me.
My first experience with psilocybin, on a beach in South Carolina, took that question out of the sky (quite literally, as I must’ve stared at the sky for hours), transformed it, and planted it inside my head. What should I do with my life became: what can I do with my consciousness?
The trip came on gradually. Traversing the sun-drenched beach with a few fellow journeymen, I strode the tightrope between sand and ocean. The water washed unfamiliar tingles across my feet, which I found inexplicably pleasing, as if I’d never felt the ocean on my toes before. Looking up, I wasn’t the only one arrested by the otherwise familiar feeling. We sat, content.
Periods of silence elongated as my thoughts occupied more mental space. My attention felt amplified and incisive. Usually, when I look at something, or feel something, I interact with my ideas about that thing, rather than the sensations of the thing itself. When I look at sunlight glistening on the ocean, I see that familiar concept, I see what I already know and expect, and so look no farther. Evolutionarily speaking, this makes sense. The ability to quickly categorize something as risk or non-risk, diverting attention from non-risk objects, is expedient in a context of primitive survival.
But in this state of persistent attention, my usual associations and preconceived notions fell away, and I grew enchanted with the intricacies of color sprawled out upon the textured water. Even the sight of my toes enthralled me — what peculiar dwarfs!
Occasionally, I’d surface from sustained introspection to remember I was sitting on a beach, surrounded by other people. I grew acutely self-conscious, realizing I’d paid no attention to how I might’ve appeared to others while giggling about my toes. Looking down the shoreline, then back to the group:
“You guys wanna head to those trees over there?”
And off we went, to a more secluded abode in which to freely enjoy our toes.
This convinced me of the imperative upon set and setting. It became clear that I could spend the entire trip marveling at heightened physical sensations, laughing with friends about anything, or worrying about my appearance to other people. But these weren’t my intentions, I had business with life’s larger concerns, and a thirst for first-hand experience of the many rooms of consciousness mystics are always yammering on about. It’s purported that tucked away in these dimly-lit rooms lie more enduring sources of well-being than anything modern society has to offer.
So as they made their way up to the hotel room, I scouted out a secluded section of beach, laid down with my head on a log, and remained inert, eyes closed, or occasionally fixed on the clouds, for what my friends later informed me was two hours.
The penetration of attention did not subside with the lessening of activity. Rather, I felt free to enter an inner chamber of contemplation. My ego did not diffuse out across the landscape, nor did I transcend my body. But the mental room I feel myself to inhabit felt remarkably spacious (a feeling I’ve since rediscovered in meditation practice). Where the typical inputs constituting my sense of ‘self’ dampened, it was not vacuity that emerged, but an awareness that brought hitherto unknown calm to the angst department. Or rather, the vacuity itself was pregnant with that spaciousness that promotes a richer dwelling in the present, an awareness which suggests itself as a missing ingredient to our algorithms of well-being.
Unknown queries from which sprouted much angst not only surfaced, but dissolved, so that my life felt no longer like a tissue of subterfuge beneath which hid longings and unformed questions. I was no longer living to manufacture a future in which my unspoken drives were resolved; it all rose to the surface of my mind and gently fell away, with disarming ease, into a richly fulfilling present teeming with intrigue.
Though no particular moment stood out as the proverbial dissolution of ego, I was nevertheless gripped by the enduring profundity of the experience. In conversation with a friend while ‘coming down’, stitching our habituated selves back into the unraveled fabric of experience, I kept asking (with the usual naivety and earnestness of first-time psilocybin-users):
“Why can’t things always be like this? Why can’t we all be this way?”
Now beyond psilocybin’s sway, my neurochemistry returning as near its previous configuration as possible, I foresaw a long, rich integration process ahead. I knew very little about what I’d just experienced, other than its significance transcended the scope of my current worldview, and its therapeutic, creative, and spiritual potential felt large.
One might respond to all this by accusing tripping of breeding apathy in a world afflicted by violence, oppression, and strife. If you become enthralled by the present, won’t you neglect what can be done for those whose experience in the present is riddled with hardship? I’d point out how averse the psychedelic consciousness is to any negativity. If there’s an ethics of psychedelic consciousness — and there’s no way to state this without platitude — it’s love.
Unlike dreams, this experience did not feel discontinuous with the consciousness to which I returned. It did not feel like a distraction, or escape, from ‘real life’. Rather, it felt like my attention burrowed beneath layers of conditioning, penetrating ever-present sub-currents that usually operate unnoticed. In these unfamiliar streams, I encountered a quality of awareness in which William Blake’s notorious verse became slightly more intelligible:
"To see a World in a Grain of SandAnd a Heaven in a Wild FlowerHold Infinity in the palm of your handAnd Eternity in an hour”
From this point on, my life escalated. My meditation practice intensified, which purports to stabilize this perspectival shift in awareness. Consciousness became, to my mind, the central node through which all experience passes.
My life became less about feeding experiences into that principal node, more about studying its composition; poking and prodding the organs of consciousness to see what changing the matrix of experience itself might do. My experience in South Carolina convinced me that psychedelics offer an immediate and extraordinary, though transient, transformation of consciousness.
Transient experiences, though, seem ultimately unsatisfying; my interest is not in escaping everyday consciousness, but enriching it. Still, mushrooms disclosed the secret, or moved it from my brain into my bones, that consciousness is not rigid and fixed. Alan Watts writes of psychedelics, “If you get the message, hang up the phone.” Elaborating:
"Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful.”
So, after these ‘various ways of meditation’ I went, and on their path I remain. Doing so, it becomes clear that consciousness is a full-body affair. Sleep, diet, exercise, attention, emotional traumas; even work and social circles. The list of levers that tinker with the quality of conscious experience is extensive. My hope remains that engaging these on all fronts might buoy my mind — my life —in ascending towards a more inclusive experience, weaving in evermore of life’s subtleties and grandeur.
The day after graduating college, I found myself upon a similar precipice as my father; figuratively, anyway. The scene was less dramatic: I sat on the concrete porch of my old collegiate home, not the banks of the Ganges. In my hand was a half-drank bottle of Andre champagne, not my passport. But the same question paced the halls of my mind: is this the end of me?
I had no job lined up, no plan. I stood upon the brink of a void in which I feared I may disappear. I feared I may become a nameless worker in some unknown corner of the country, confined to the toiling ranks of those who never embarked upon a career track, who merely exist, like insubstantial clouds that come and go, not knowing what else to do.
But, I believe in large part because of the visceral insights found during my psychedelic experiences, what I began to see upon that blank canvas of an entire lifetime sprawled out before me shifted from anxiety to opportunity. An opportunity to craft a life in service of consciousness. That may sound weird, vague, or nostalgic for the 60’s, but for whatever far-out reason, it animates me. It brings a vitality and vigor to my life previously unknown. And that, for me, is the whole point. As American poet Anne Waldman puts it:
“We’re here to disappear, therefore let’s be as vivid and generous as we can.”
Soon after, my girlfriend and I purchased one-way tickets to India, and began our next trip. I never considered throwing my passport in the Ganges. But I did dip my peculiar dwarf toes in.
This is the legacy of my psychedelic experience: a passionate commitment to meditation, reading, writing, sleep, diet, exercise, and mental autonomy. No wonder they remain illegal.