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Communicating Experience
by Jon Hanna
June 2006
Citation:   Hanna J. "Communicating Experience". Erowid Extracts. Jun 2006;10:20.
Documenting one's drug experiences is a time-honored tradition. Visionary voyages have been masterfully depicted in paintings by Ernst Fόchs, Mati Klarwein and Alex Grey, among others. Working in countless styles, musicians harness sound to reminisce upon or induce aspects of altered consciousness. And authors such as Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Aldous Huxley, Henri Michaux, and Anaοs Nin--or more recently, Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, and the Shulgins--have poetically evoked psychedelic mind spaces via the written word.

Along with books compiled of such material, "experience reports" have been featured in small circulation publications like the Psychedelic Information Center Bulletin, The Psychozoic Press, Notes From The Underground, and The Entheogen Review. And beginning in the mid-1990s, the main stage for trip tales shifted to e-mail lists and websites.

As a book and magazine editor, over the years I have had the opportunity to peruse a wide variety of personal stories of drug use, and I have learned a lot about the art of recording and communicating the psychedelic experience.

The value of retaining a diary of one's drug adventures struck me with the most impact when I read Myron Stolaroff's autobiography, Thanatos to Eros: Thirty-five Years of Psychedelic Exploration. Through his well-written, engaging reflections, Myron expressed the idea that drug trips themselves aren't of paramount importance. Rather, the crux of the biscuit is how one is able to improve one's life following these experiences. For most of us, such betterment requires a lot of hard work and we welcome anything to make that easier. Over time, documenting one's experiences allows for the opportunity to ruminate on personal psychological or spiritual hurdles, gauging one's progress. Sharing these vignettes acts as a sacred community service, since folks can learn from one's successes and mistakes.

However, the reader of other people's experience reports may quickly become frustrated by a lack of those specific details that could allow for practical application of the material presented. Time and again, when reading reports, I have wondered: "Yes, but how was the drug in question prepared? How much was taken? What did the psychonaut weigh? What sort of previous experience did the person have with this drug? Was he or she on any medications whose interactions impacted the results reported?" That last question is pivotal in a world where people increasingly pop a plethora of prescription meds on a daily basis. Perhaps then, what people need is a standard experience report check-list (see sidebar), which provides reminders of key topics to consider each time one writes up a trip. The creation of such a check-list inspired me to pen this article, and I welcome feedback on ways to improve it.

Tricks of the Trade
In describing the intensity of a drug-induced experience, the rating tool of choice for many is "The Shulgin Scale" of plus/minus, plus one, plus two, plus three, and plus four. Its simplicity makes it easy to use, which is key for self-reporting.

A chronology of the effects generally forms a report's backbone. When was the drug taken? When was a first "alert" felt? When did the full effects manifest? It can be helpful to have paper pre-marked with increments of time, based on how often one hopes to jot down a few notes. Clocks and alarms can remind one of the recording task; kitchen timers work well for increments of sixty minutes or less, and are easy to reset.

One of the greatest challenges I have had when writing my own experience reports has been that, once I am having the voyage, I lose motivation to write anything about it. At such times, documentation tasks may strike me as being silly or missing the point; in a "be here now" vein, my mental state compels participation rather than observation. I wonder why it mattered so much to me, before I embarked on the trip, that I bother to try and describe it every X-many minutes. While awash in the ineffable, aren't all attempts to distill that mind state into something "effable" just doomed anyway?

One recourse is an audio recorder; it may be easier to vocalize what I'm experiencing than write about it. Another solution is to have a sober friend act as a sitter, who has been instructed to present pre-specified tasks at set times. For example, in The Secret Chief, Leo Zeff (aka "Jacob") describes the technique of selecting old personal photos prior to the trip and having the sitter present them during the experience. A sitter can also be responsible for operating an audio or video recorder to avoid technical issues interrupting the flow of the experience.

Developed by Russell T. Hurlburt, Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES) is a method that generates discrete qualitative reports of inner experiences. Via a beeper sounded at random intervals, DES cues people to collect samples of their inner experience during an agreed-upon time range. Each beep is a reminder to answer the question: "What are the details of your inner experience at this very moment?" (Hurlburt 1990. Sampling Normal and Schizophrenic Inner Experience). One can jot down notes or speak into a portable recorder, tagging the response with the current time at the end of the entry. Such a method would be particularly suited for use with longer-acting psychedelic drugs and might generate interesting results. Using a specific ring tone, a friend (or computer) could call a cell phone at random intervals during a predetermined range of hours. There would be no need to answer the calls--they are just triggers to record the "inner experience".

A portion of each report should be dedicated to post-experience "reflections". These can be written the day after the experience, and/or a week later, and/or a month later, and/or a year later, or whenever the mood strikes as long as the date is noted. Revisiting and updating old trip reports can provide new insights and renewed encouragement for inciting or maintaining positive psychological changes. Reflections and follow-ups are also important to allow others to see what the author feels has or has not worked.

Either in the report itself or in a separate profile, authors should write some background information about themselves, including factual details like a history of past drug consumption, but also views on philosophical issues like religion, mysticism, and consciousness.

Are you a rationalist/materialist deeply committed to the scientific method? Do you believe in psychic phenomenon, ghosts, aliens, or plants spirits? Are you a diehard agnostic, or do you adhere to any particular religion? Answering these sort of questions allows readers to have a better idea where an author is coming from.

Contribute to Erowid
Experience reports that fit specific criteria are welcomed at the Erowid website (see Erowid.org/experiences/submit). With each new submission posted, the Experience Vaults become incrementally more useful for those interested in trying some new compound or combination (or more enjoyable for those who just like to live vicariously through the voyages of others). Any given report is not the final word, of course, and caution is particularly warranted when applying information gleaned from reports in cases where the data pool is limited.

When buying a pizza recently, the counter guy noticed my Mind States bank card and asked me what business I was in. Once we got to talking, he described a somatically less-than-pleasant morning glory seed trip he had taken, remarking that he had not read far enough in the Erowid experience reports before trying the seeds. After heaving all night, the next day he discovered a submission describing some "ten hours of hell" that echoed his own experience. The caveat, then: read as much as possible before heading into unexplored territory.

Whether written, rendered artistically, or recorded in some other medium, there's always room for more well-communicated, unique voyages.