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Hone Your Own Flow

teafaerie | Musings | Monday, May 11th, 2009

When I’m on psychedelic drugs, I’m much worse at most of the things that I try to do. I’m worse at tying my shoes, for instance, and I’m worse at keeping track of time. I suck at operating electronics when I’m stoned, and at finding large objects in small pockets. I’m bad at remembering what I was just thinking or saying, I can scarcely read printed text, and making sense of subway maps is entirely out of the question. The dire warnings about the operation of heavy machinery are well founded, as are the tough laws against attempting to drive a car.

On the other hand, there are a few things that I’m better at when I’m high. Such, in any event, is my consistent perception. Importantly, sober observers tend to agree with me, and video records made at various altitudes confirm my suspicions.

I’m active in the fire spinning and flow arts community, which means that I like to set things on fire and swing them around. Sometimes the thing is a hula hoop or a big staff, other times it’s something more like a baton or a small ball on the end of a chain. I mostly don’t practice with real fire, of course (for which sobriety is emphatically recommended), but I practice quite a bit. I do it every day. I know what I can do and I know what’s just barely out of my reach, and I can state with complete confidence that I’m noticeably more awesome at twirling things around on, say, a touch of acid than I am when I’m stone cold sober.

This is assuming that all conditions are nominal and I can rally my focus to give it a good go and what have you; but the effect is fairly consistent, tested over maybe 100 experiences in a wide variety of sets and settings. It doesn’t require a whole lot of drugs. There’s a point of diminishing returns, obviously. Sometimes I just like to take a little bit. A good +1 on ye olde Shulgin Scale is enough to give me an appreciable edge. I think it has something to do with time dilation, though I don’t think that this is a complete explanation. I do occasionally get this sort of Bullet Time effect where I seem to be watching my tool swing around in slow motion, and I have plenty of time to pluck a falling object out of the air without quite having to rush.

I had this practice for a long while and spinning became a real trip anchor for me, and eventually also something like a sail. Accordingly, I started hanging out with more spinners and attending related events. […] As a result of all this our house has become something of a crash landing pad for itinerant flowbos on the international fire-spinning circuit, so I get a chance to talk in depth with quite an impressive cross-section of the subculture’s superstars. In the beginning, I was surprised by the percentage of top-tier performers who would cop to having made enormous breakthroughs in their arts on psychedelics. Now I kind of tend to assume it, unless I’m told otherwise. It’s by no means the rule, so please don’t think I’m suggesting that all or even most flow arts practitioners use drugs. I know plenty of straight or straightish spinners who are truly amazing, though many of them are way into yoga or some other integrated physio-energetic practice in addition to spinning.

The ecstatic dance community reports similar phenomena. Almost everybody has a story about the time they finally clicked into the trance, and nine times out of ten the experience involved some kind of psychedelic or empathogen. What they tend to say about it always sounds vaguely Eastern to me, with people talking about Chi and feeling “in tune” or “in harmony” with their tool, or even with the Universe itself. Some of them speak of a mysterious energy field that seems to both control their actions and obey their commands. Is this perception just a hangover from our Star Wars–soaked youth, or is there something to it? For sure a sense of unity with all things is an almost hackneyed psychedelic cliché, as is the impression that one is suddenly possessed of extraordinary skill, knowledge, or good fortune.

Another well-worn trope of the psychedelic experience is the perception that events seem to mysteriously constellate themselves around the vagaries of whim or will, or in accordance with some underlying congruity between the individual and her environment. Carl Jung called this phenomenon “synchronicity”, and he thought it to be objectively true, whatever that means. He found that it often occurred when a patient was unusually inflated, or at a particularly critical phase of therapy.

My personal experience with synchronicity, manifestation and repetition of pattern as related to psychedelics is far too bizarre to elucidate in this forum. I’d lose whatever shred of credibility I might hope to cling to if I told you half of the less impressive stories in my exceedingly outré collection. I’m not just talking about opening up to the right pages in books and little parlor tricks of that nature, either. The repetition thing is particularly interesting to me. For instance, I happened to eat apricots and almonds at the peak of my very first candyflip, and I’ve been “randomly” offered both foods together on no less than ten subsequent occasions, all while under the influence of the same combination of chemicals. The stranger holding the bag of trail mix always looks at me kinda funny when I suddenly burst out laughing and can’t seem to stop. I’ve given up trying to explain it to them. But I always accept the munchies. It’s sort of a tradition.

Yeah yeah, I know. We’re pattern-recognizing machines. That’s what we do. I was one of those kids who read Illuminatus in high school and I thought the number 23 was following me around for a while, right up until I decided to make myself obsessed with a different random number on purpose. Lo and behold, the new number starting appearing everywhere in my life. Just like any number would if you happened to be especially programmed to notice it. One of the things that drugs do is goose the button that says “This Is Important! This Means Something!” even when the situation is totally trivial. For sure this is part of what’s going on here. Tough to pick it all apart, though.

I think enhanced pattern recognition is a big piece of the puzzle, actually. According to several friends (ahem) high up in the field, a lot of computer programmers do their best work with just a little bit of an edge on, too. I once had a friend who got his PhD in mathematics. In order to do this you have to *discover something new in math*. I can still remember him sitting on the floor of the rec. room on half a hit of acid, shuffling and
reshuffling pages of numbers, trying to pick the whole pattern up in his head and turn it sideways so he could see it from a different angle. This might also explain why some musicians find that psychoactives enhance their art. And indeed I hesitate to speculate about who would be left holding their statuettes if they started stripping folks of their Grammys and whatnot on the grounds that some of the past winners made use of performance-enhancing substances. That being said, in my experience many tripping musicians are rather like drunk musicians: overweening, underprepared, and incompetent. Except when they aren’t.

On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis pitched a rare no-hitter against the Padres in the opening game of a double header in San Diego. He claims to have been under the influence of LSD when it happened, although he did not reveal that part of the story until many years after the fact. He had forgotten that it was a game day until after he’d already dosed. Apparently he was in the groove and success was inevitable, even though by all accounts he pitched a pretty wild game, walking several batters, dodging imaginary line drives, and almost hitting a couple of guys.

Psychedelics have been associated with the stimulation of the linguistic function in more than one context. I myself have had mixed luck attempting to amuse the muses in this manner. Writing is definitely a flow thing for me, though, and while it’s sadly true that most of my high-flung output is pure crap, what I still think of as the best thing I’ve ever written was produced on several grams of P. cubensis, straight upstream of consciousness, all-in-one-go, with almost no cross-outs or editing. (You can find it at http://teafaerie.tumblr.com/post/71045001/mammafesta and judge for yourself.) At other times, I couldn’t complete a sentence on an eighth of mushrooms if my life depended upon it. It’s not all that reliable, but when it works it works.

It goes without saying that plenty of users never experience anything remotely like this at all. I just find it interesting that so many of the people whom I bring it up to seem to know what I’m talking about. I’ve heard some fascinating stories. Certainly the commonality of these themes is well borne out in the literature.

Then of course there’s anti-flow, which is when everything goes haywire and you can’t do a damn thing right. Yes, it does happen. Let’s not even talk about it, though.

So what’s going on here? Is it a Chi thing, like a surge in The Force that I grew up wanting to believe in? Or is it something more akin to having a faster processor speed and a better connection? Is it the result of some kind of perceptual shift, like time dilation, increased visual acuity, or super-sensitized kinesthetic awareness? Is it a concentration thing? Is it just the placebo effect? Is it immersion in the Tao or some more Jungian organizing principle? Is it magic? Is it an illusion? Is there a difference? The debate flows on.

It really is a thing though. If you’ve never had it happen to you, try dancing more.

16 Comments »

  1. I absolutely know what you’re talking about.

    I’d like to share my story of summer 2007 where I lived out of my car, couch hopping and working on films in Santa Fe, and was, essentially, reborn. I’ve been meaning to write it out, in detail and length, for a long time but haven’t quite done it yet.

    Expect an email in the near future. :)

    Comment by Stephanie (inkandmask) — May 13, 2009 @ 12:50 am

  2. And no mention of the conversational/communicative enhancements? I could definitely cite a couple instances of telepathy, not to mention the fact that thoughts seem to transfer prior to words in certain headspaces :) Certain glances can carry boatloads of information that can sometimes even be futile to try to explain verbally. Anyways, that’s my too scents ;-)

    Enjoyed your flow as usual! May the Synchronistic Tao Force be with you!

    Comment by Joey D — May 14, 2009 @ 12:38 am

  3. It is a neuro-chemical, purely logical effect of course.
    Like having two parallel trains of though when on DXM.
    There is no logical reason to believe in God, Chi, or similar.
    Let’s free ourselves from the chains of dogmas and be free.

    Comment by Daniel — May 14, 2009 @ 6:23 am

  4. I have had similar experience when coming down off of LSD and practicing some new spins (poi). The dosage was low and it was already a bit past peak, but a number of people were amazed that I picked up the wraps they were showing me in one sitting. (for those not understanding, wraps are when a thingy on fire wraps around your body and then manages to unwrap somehow without burning you). I was not practicing with fire that day, but from that day on all the wraps continued to be part of my reportoir as if I had already been working on them for a long time.

    Other fire dancers in the group confirmed that they also learn easier on LSD and we decided that it had to do with a change in the way muscle memory, or memory in general, was being stored in your body. What we came up with (however, not all of us were scientists), was that we were able to not get stuck in overused memory pathways (aka, established muscle memory) (aka, no need to unlearn in order to learn) and created new muscle memories with ease.

    and the studies go on

    Comment by slav — May 14, 2009 @ 8:18 am

  5. re: comment “There is no logical reason to believe in God, Chi, or similar.”

    Logically, I can use a conceptual framework as a stepping stone to … further conceptualizations. Metaphor is probably like one of the ultimate methods (if not the ultimate method) of understanding things better: one thing is seen in terms of another, light shines on faces & angles of the thing that was reflected from the others.

    I mean that’s just for starters, man, that’s something one could do, while still remaining true-blue to their preferred approaches which don’t involve much esteem of e.g. theology.

    Instead of closing a door forthwith.

    Optimally, the conceptualizer will keep their senses about them …… never being overwhelmed, enchanted, or taken hostage by their experimental models, ideologies (what a loaded term, amirite), religions, languages, or what have you. This is where your training in the rational mind

    (unless total immersion would be helpful, this typically IME via a pretty drastic/”heavy” process that the survivor gazes back on with complex ambi-valent feelings, now exponentially wiser.) (that’s life, eh!)

    (and don’t cling to a sinking raft of reason when it’s better to lay down and (safely) surrender to the void … you can retrace your steps later … This just being simply Practical Advice, for when in Rome on psychedelic drugs, or I suppose in some other weird situations …)

    —–

    re: teafaerie’s article: awesome. great great read, I’m amazed and thoughtful, thanks!

    Comment by sleepless in seattle — May 17, 2009 @ 6:07 am

  6. I believe this comes from an enhanced connection to the Universal Mind. Do you find it’s a bit hit and miss? I do. I think it’s because the Universal Mind (i call God) is alive, and dislikes to be made to perform at your whim. Just like all of us, He enjoys novelty and freedom.

    Comment by ghamal — May 17, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

  7. Lovely…..i love the comment made by ghamal, yes its a very spiritual thing. Has alot to do with God, satan, angels and demons….the spiritual realm is very real people :)

    …..i love you all!!! this is my life …… :)

    Comment by rhcp484 — May 28, 2009 @ 9:41 am

  8. Easily your finest article. I found myself captivated from beginning to end. Keep up the wonderful work.

    Comment by YellowArcher — May 28, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  9. From a neuropsychological perspective, the things you find yourself being less good at, such as attention and short term memory, and general self control (e.g. operating heavy machinery) are aspects of what Psychologists call Executive Function.

    You can read about it on Wikipedia or somewhere, but basically Executive Function is all about attention, short term memory, planning and self control. Its enhanced somewhat by drugs like Ritalin and Dexedrine (both used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder) though often at the expense of creativity. Too much self control can stifle the creative process. A natural and flowing work of art could be spoiled by too much planning.

    Its a common effect with psychedelics from cannabis to acid that they reduce peoples ability to pay attention and hence their ability to plan and function normally (remember how hard it is to operate a Toaster while high?). However, this reduction in attention, short term memory and planning ability does seem to coincide with enahanced feelings of creativity. Thats not to say that we all produce brilliant works of art while high, but most people feel creative and sometimes we do produce something great.

    A good example which agrees with this Neuropsychological argument is that of Jazz musicians when they are improvising. There was a recent study in which the brains of these musicians where scanned whilst they were playing musical scales (non improv) and then whilst improvising. What the scans showed was that certain areas in the Prefrontal Cortex became less active during the Improv, as opposed to when playing scales. This would agree with the idea that planning and self control need to be relaxed in order to enhance creativity, as the Frontal Lobes of the brain are critically important to Executive Function.

    This article explains the above study nicely in terms of “turning off the self monitor” http://www.scientificblogging.com/news_releases/study_prefrontal_cortex_in_jazz_musicians_winds_down_when_improvising

    It’d be great to see a Brain Imaging study of what brain regions are affected by using a drug such as LSD, but sadly its really, really hard to getting ethical approval or funding for these kind of experiments. I’ve got friends who look at the effects of LSD on slices of rat brains, but not in live human participants. If psychedelics such as LSD do reduce the self monitoring aspects of Executive Function, it is entirely possible that that would explain the enhanced feelings of creativity.

    So anyway, just to let you know that Neuropsychological evidence which roughly agrees with your personal experience. (For the record, I work with people with brain injuries while I’m studying for my PhD and your article has reminded me that I should really renew my Erowid membership again…)

    Comment by Tom Michael — May 28, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

  10. As per the ‘dogma’ comment:

    We’re all trying to expand our consciousness. And I understand the rejection of religion in contemporary society. But, discounting and balking at the existence of these things: chi, energy, prana, even Krishna consciousness, Buddha, God, etc. is like a dogma to me. It’s fine to begin with an atheistic or agnostic perception. But this kind of skepticism is constrained and constraining on experience. It effectively contains our minds within the contemporary paradigm of science. This attitude is especially like a dogma when you attempt to impose your paradigm on others’ experiences.

    I’ve had profound sober experiences in yoga and chi gong classes of my ‘prana’ and ‘chi’ being released and manipulated. Sure, our nervous systems are being trained and re-trained, but modern medical science does not subsume these practices. I can never reject these experiences through logical thought.

    Comment by geopoliticus — May 29, 2009 @ 8:00 am

  11. I definitely agree with this article. I am a free-hand raver (I’ve tried POI, but I still need MUCH practice at not hitting myself and doing more complex tricks) and am also a black belt in Kenpo karate. I would say that dancing with lights makes it easier to see whats happening while so much chaos is occurring around you. Classical serotonergic psychedelics I would say are the best at creating complex designs with glowsticks and also allowing you to envision 20 steps ahead what you would like to create. It feels purely intellectual however. Drugs like MDMA also make it easier, but in a mood enhanced sense and not as much through purely cognitive means. What I’m essentially saying is that because MDMA makes you feel amplified in your mood, it influences your cognitive potential (making your better at raving when your VERY happy, but potentially lowering your potential when your not feeling as happy -MDMA doesn’t just make you happy!) instead of altering it directly like psychedelics seem to.

    Serotonergic drugs that affect 5-HT 2A/2C/1A receptors seem to create different trails in contrast to MDMA. I’m not sure if its because of the dopamine increase or because of the unspecified serotonin release. Phenethylamines however, don’t have the same trails as tryptamines however. I also don’t really have the oily/water wave effect on everything I see. MDMA has more frames in a given length of trail than any random tryptamine. Tryptamines generally seem to create long trails however, especially LSD. LSD also is a strange chemical in that it doesn’t seem to be like most tryptamines, it seems to have phenethylamine qualities to it’s visions (especially OEV). When candy flipping (LSD + MDMA), these two qualities merge, to create an experience with longer trails and higher frame frequency than both alone. I generally don’t have as much increase in dancing quality/ability on phenethylamines (maybe I haven’t raved enough on them either) in contrast to tryptamines. Tryptamines like the ones in psilocybin mushrooms have previously been good for dancing, but they lack the energy component. Time dilation might have some implications in this overall effect (as time dilation seems greatest under tryptamines), but only if the chemical is generally stimulating as well. For this reason tryptamines with the 5-MeO prefix seem to have an advantage for the raver, although the chemical seems more toxic as a trade off for potency. Visions also seem to subside with the 5-MeO prefix, which lends me to believe that perhaps a lot of the effects go above and beyond the simple benefit of seeing what your sculpting mid-air with the aid of tracers.

    LSD gives you more endurance to dance than MDMA I find. The disadvantage I have on MDMA is that I start becoming overly concerned about thermoregulation and keeping my body cool. This paranoia detracts from my overall abilities. LSD makes me feel like a machine that has no stop button and the only things limiting me from creating a masterpiece is my bodies limitations (without fear of over heating).

    Still discovering, still questioning, and hope I can come back to this subject in the future with more insight than I already have.

    Comment by ShadowShaman — June 1, 2009 @ 2:35 am

  12. Many of you are impressive souls, and I just want to encourage the science, the art, and the prophet within all of you.

    This article and series of insightful comments has encouraged me to continue with a path which I had previously become discouraged. Inspiration will find us when we are ready, and i had forgotten this universal truth. I am continually reminded of the wonderful order of all existing complexities.

    Look inward, and outward with equal compassion and energy. Follow your chi. Doorways will only close if you allow them to do so.

    Reality is a duet between two gods, a positive, and a negative.

    Choose which god you want to be a part of.

    Comment by BeatFrequency — June 16, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

  13. I’ve enjoyed your playful and explorative musings on the psychedelic experience – this is definitely your best article yet. I have to agree with Geopoliticus however that your overly skeptical, atheistic bias can be bit much. Eastern traditions have a far LONGER track record than Western “scientific positivism” in reliably and consistently taking people to higher states of consciousness. This “science” of the East (i.e. Yoga) with it’s millions of practitioners over thousands of years, have mapped, explored and pioneered some of the furthest reaches of human consciousness. To casually discount it smacks of dogmatism and a very peculiar form of materialist bias given the subject matter. Treating the psychedelic endeavor as an elaborate computer game with “magic tricks” and “cheat codes” is fun to be sure, but if that’s all you do, you’ll come up empty when the quarters run out.

    Comment by Shamballistic — July 28, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

  14. Just wanted to share with you my own flow experience, which I got from marijuana.

    Although I no longer smoke weed (I have my reasons), I still look back fondly on my stoner days. One thing I noticed was that when I was both drunk AND high, I couldn’t play very well. I tended to lose my sense of rhythm, and even my place in a song. But when I was just high, I could play just as well as when I was sober. Sometimes, even a little better.

    Three years ago I visited my friend in another city. We smoked weed of course, then we went bar-hopping. In one of the bars we visited, there was a band playing. We were friends with the lead singer. He (the singer) invited me to jam with their guitarist since it was the end of their set anyway. So I sat down on the cajon and we played song after song. And I was still stoned but man, the rhythm was flowing out of me like a river! The singer was sitting at the table with my friend and he (according to my friend) was raving about my playing.

    Comment by Rafael — October 2, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

  15. I just read Mammafesta….Nothing like having a written piece tug at your soul strings and bring a glimmer of understanding to your heart, not to mention Joy! Very well written, thank you for sharing it with the world.

    Comment by Theophany Blackfoot — July 11, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

  16. One word about easier learning(and bunch of other things), check mirror neurons from wiki and this nice little speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0pwKzTRG5E

    Comment by Nelson — November 10, 2010 @ 5:47 am

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