It’s a sort of spider-like creature, but a spider with gaping jaws. It crawls towards me on the floor – right towards my face as I’m lying on my back. Now a swarm of these creatures completely cover my body and begin to eat me alive.
It started simply from seeing the closet on the other side of the room. A dark and shadowy place – reminiscent of monsters in the closet – and a hanging jacket began to look vaguely insectoid. As a child I had terrible arachnophobia, and so naturally my mind conjures up this particular creature and the ensuing visualization. The spider-with-a-mouth is meant to be the embodiment of fear itself. Being eaten alive by a swarm of them, I suppose, is the logical next step.
This occurs in the middle of an LSD trip, if you hadn’t already guessed. Following the visualization came a voice reassuring me: It’s OK to be afraid of being eaten alive. Having one’s beliefs built up again from the ground up is a hallmark of psychedelic experience.
As horrifying as it was, strangely enough this vision was not involuntary. I was, in no uncertain terms, subjecting myself to it, and aware I was doing so while it was going on. Multi-level awareness of this kind is also not uncommon on psychedelics.
The experience impressed upon me the importance of overcoming fear – not only when it arises circumstantially but also of deliberately subjecting myself to it for this reason. This mirrors a sort of exercise I’ve done with other drugs, namely edible marijuana. I would lay down and just allow my mind to come up with whatever terrifying images it likes and practice breathing through them. Spider-monsters feature sometimes and another common one, for me, is being eaten by a giant shark.
In any case, more than one of my psychedelic experiences have at least in part been characterized by this emphasis on the importance of overcoming fear. An important value, to be sure, and one that has been instrumental in my life, as I’m sure it has been for many people. But this is just one of many values one might derive from a psychedelic experience. Common others include love, gratitude, compassion, humility, closeness to nature, and human connection.
I wrote before about a particular aspect of psychedelic subjectivity – the sense of one’s perception sliding up and down (or in and out of) levels on a scale of magnitude. There are different ways to conceptualize this; levels in a hierarchy being one. Another is concentric circles, moving out from the centre as the most unified to the periphery as the most individuated. Either way, it is some set of states of consciousness or modes of perception that are either totally unavailable or at best murky to us in our normal state.
I suggested that increased interconnectedness between these levels might be one reason psychedelics enhance creativity – but it’s also possible there is something much more profound going on.
In a recent lecture professor Jordan Peterson discussed this same phenomenon, in the context of the story of Jacob’s Ladder in the Bible, where Jacob has a visionary dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven. Peterson then describes some of the psychedelic research on psilocybin and mystical experience (specifically this paper) and remarks upon how people’s behaviour tends to shift in positive ways after religious or mystical-type experience.
The section I’m referring to starts at around 1:15:00.
So what exactly is happening when we experience something at another level or state of consciousness and bring it back to implement at this level? This is the core of “psychedelic integration”, but it’s not entirely clear what that process actually entails.
There are at least three related practical questions here:
1) What values do psychedelic experiences imbue in people?
2) What values, if any, unite the psychedelic community?
3) To what extent do these values come from the substances themselves, as compared to already existing in individuals?
My own trips have sometimes made it seem, clearly and undeniably, that there is some set of universal values to be understood and incorporated from taking psychedelics. But as subjectively convincing as this is, there is also the question of causality – a kind of psychedelic chicken and egg problem. I may get a message about overcoming fear while on LSD, but to what extent does this value feature in my trip simply because because it has already featured in my life?
Similarly, my psychedelic experiences tend to reify what I already believe about subjective reality and the nature of the universe. Does this come from access to some otherworldly transcendent domain, or is it just a kind of ontological confirmation bias?
The sense I get from attending psychedelic meet ups and conferences doesn’t exactly shed light on this either. I seem to have a lot in common with some of the people there, but very little with others – besides our mutual interest in psychedelics. This is arguably a good thing, because it means psychedelics can serve many different types of people, but it still begs the question of whether there is anything that actually unites the psychedelic community besides some general belief in psychedelics themselves. (And, does there need to be?)
Perhaps the valuable values (excuse me for that) that come from psychedelics are the broad and universal ones like love and compassion. These are some of the most important values we have, to be sure, but at the same time their general nature seems to make their practical utility limited.
Statements like love is the most important thing or we should all love each other more sound great (and may be true), but the problem is that almost no one disagrees with them. They are so deeply ingrained at the bottom of our collective morality that they have become almost superfluous. And if something is agreed upon in theory but contradiction exists everywhere it’s implemented at the level of behaviour, how useful is it really?
These are important questions going forward, particularly with regard to psychedelic use for “the betterment of the well”. Can psychedelics do as much for the average, relatively mentally and emotionally healthy person as they can for those suffering from depression, PTSD, addiction, or other ailments?
There are some surprising answers here and the scientific literature on this topic is quite fascinating. In the next post I’ll discuss some of the research thus far in light of these questions, and explore what it tells us about psychedelic experience, personality traits, and values in more detail.