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Some Ruminations and Tips on Tripping
From forty years of personal experience
by JP
v1.0 - Nov 15, 2007
Citation:   JP. "Some Ruminations and Tips on Tripping". Nov 15, 2007.
The author of this essay is an editor, non-fiction writer, organizer of environmental conferences and a taijiquan instructor in his mid-fifties who was first exposed to psychedelics in the mid 1960s while he was caught up as a very excitable adolescent in both the wild radical politics and the "counterculture" of the era. He first took LSD in 1966 and continued to experiment fairly extensively with a range of psychedelics for the next 7 years or so. In the last 25 years, his usage has been very infrequent, but he still considers these experiences to have been crucially important in shaping his worldview. He has helped produce a number of lectures, panels, conferences and events over the years that have included noted figures in ethnobotany and other disciplines related to visionary plant use.

I have written this piece because, on several occasions, acquaintances with very little or no experience in the matter solicited my opinion about their possible consumption of a psychedelic substance and what to expect if they went ahead. As I thought about what to say, I realized I was incapable of providing a simple answer, but that I did want to attempt some sort of response. I thought it would be best to wrestle with my ruminations in writing. My own personal experiences in this realm were extensive, but they were almost all decades ago, in my younger days. I've continued to observe cultural trends in this area over the years and I've read extensively about nearly every aspect of this domain, from ethnobotany to history to sociology and anthropology to neuroscience to philosophy. I've also talked at length to some of the significant figures in the field. I don't claim any really authoritative wisdom about the topic, however, and can't offer ironclad pronouncements. I did commit many of the errors I warn against in my own usage, so at least what caveats I offer are heartfelt and a reflection of my own experiences.

The psychedelic experience is highly marginalized and proscribed or simply ridiculed in our society. This is quite unfair, as these types of visionary experiences probably played important roles in several foundational civilizations (India, Ancient Greece, etc.) and are also central to very sophisticated ecological worldviews among some "new world" indigenous groups. In addition, they have had powerful effects on our own culture's arts and sciences. In the subcultures that use them, however, there is often a failure to consider carefully the very real psychological, medical and ideological (not to mention the legal) risks these substances can present.

These following thoughts are mostly meant for those who are considering consuming vision-inducing substances outside of traditional indigenous or syncretic or other organized ritual frameworks, since these groups obviously have their own guidelines and worldviews. Some feel that it is best to only take such substances in those traditional, supportive contexts. Traditional contexts, it is argued, offer much safer containers for these experiences, and, at their best, are led by highly qualified guides to the inner realms. These contexts are designed to enhance social solidarity and mutual aid and to correct imbalances in the social body as well as to heal individuals and enhance their personal awareness. They have time-tested wisdom and a very long track record.

There is no doubt that it gets much riskier to improvise the taking of powerful consciousness-altering substances in the context of the neurotic and tense psychic landscape of a modern, industrialized society. But, obviously, there are, around the globe, many subcultures and individuals among whom such non-traditional use does occur, and they are not about to disappear. Many moderns are very resistant to the ritual formalism of some traditional sacred plant use ceremonies and/or don't resonate with their culture-specific trappings. I suspect we all carry a collective memory of our not-so-distant hunting and gathering shamanic ancestors, but we are also, for better or worse, heirs of a more recent Enlightenment tradition of robust individuality and we want to do things our way.

So while I am not advocating such non-traditional use, which can be fraught with problems and risks, I know it will continue, so I offer some reflections for those who will choose to pursue these experiences. Before I begin though, I feel that I should first explain why I feel strongly that some uses are best reserved for the more traditional settings.

For most uses of psychoactive substances, it's best to be in robust physical and mental health. But seeking to heal from a serious ailment by using visionary substances as psycho-spiritual medicines is actually the most common use of visionary plants in indigenous contexts. If one is seeking such healing, especially for a serious condition, I strongly recommend finding an authentic, highly respected indigenous healer with extensive experience using sacred plants in this way. They are the specialists, and their cultures have very long track records in this domain. Attempting such healing on one's own or in an ad hoc setting seems like a very dangerous course of action to me. Of course, many of these indigenous cultures are under threat, often unraveling from modernity's assaults, so finding authentic practitioners (as opposed to opportunistic charlatans) is not easy, but it is not impossible. Several of these healing traditions have adapted to modernity and are thriving. And some syncretic groups, especially some originating in Brazil, have built solid, supportive socio-religious structures after absorbing indigenous teachings and seem to have very good results in using sacred plants in healing rituals.

Nearly all the indigenous traditions use visionary plants at night in groups, in ritual settings, with a shaman or "road man" or other spiritual figure as the journey's guide. Healing is usually the primary focus of these gatherings, though they can also be used to ritually mark significant occasions in personal or collective life. In some cultures visionary plants are used to gain access to helpers in the spirit worlds who can provide other specific types of practical information--about the use of plants, where to find game in hunting expeditions, political decisions, etc. Other indigenous uses of visionary substances include rites of passage for adolescents (in Gabon or among the Huichol, for example), the training of budding shamans, and midwifery.

For modern ethnobotanists who seek information about medicinal plants, learning from indigenous teachers again seems like the best option, though there are now some circles of very accomplished "plant people" in our own culture who have learned from indigenous teachers but are developing their own effective "homegrown" methods of "intuitive botany". And Jeremy Narby, the anthropologist, indigenous land rights activist and author, concocted a fascinating experiment. He took a group of Western scientists to the Amazon to take ayahuasca with traditional shamans to see if this shamanic path to knowledge could be used to discover tangible scientific information. These are examples of emerging hybrid models of visionary plant use, rooted in traditional indigenous ways but evolving in interesting new directions.

There is a great deal of sorcery and "black magic" associated with shamanic traditions and with the use of powerful visionary plants. Western psychedelic enthusiasts often sanitize and romanticize these cultures and leave out the dark parts, but cultures (including our own) are always package deals. Psychically the dark side is very dangerous territory for anyone, but especially for modern Westerners who are not, generally, equipped to chart such waters. Fortunately, most of the reputable indigenous healers available to Westerners at this point tend not to emphasize this darker side of the lore. I personally recommend avoiding like the plague any groups or guru-like figures who combine drug use with anything resembling "black magic" in their practices. One warning sign is an excessive concern with the accumulation of psychic "power" and the neglect of compassion as a core value.

Tripping is never something that should be done lightly. It can be very psychologically destructive for the wrong person, or even for the right person at the wrong time in the wrong environment. My advice is that if, after honest self-inquiry, you don't think you would be capable of facing down your innermost terrors and fears of death and insanity, not to mention very convincing and scary demons, I'd opt for other paths to ecstasy and visionary states (and there are other excellent paths). Self-knowledge is a key to wisdom, and knowing which paths are right for you and which aren't at different stages of your life is a very important component of wisdom.

It may also be best not to undertake such experiences when one is too young. Some traditional cultures do use visionary plants as a rite of passage for some adolescents, but with socially approved, highly qualified adult guidance. These conditions don't exist in our society. In our culture these types of substances often serve best as correctives to selfishness and materialism and to help some of us break out of our rigidity and habitual patterns. I think it's best to have first developed a solid ego structure before seeking to shake it up.

Self-knowledge is a key to wisdom, and knowing which paths are right for you and which aren't at different stages of your life is a very important component of wisdom.
My own view is that the tripping experience is not for most people, and that even for those who are likely to benefit, the timing must be right and the preparation impeccable for positive results to be more likely than negative ones. There are people who have never recovered from a bad trip, and even a few who took their own lives as a result of a bad trip. They are a tiny minority, but it is important to face these facts squarely. No one with a history of schizophrenia or manic or paranoid episodes (or significant family histories of such illnesses), or who is struggling with severe psychological or emotional issues, should consider tripping.

Another group of people who should probably not trip, or at least should think about it very carefully, are those who, while not at risk of serious psychiatric conditions, are already very psychically sensitive to other realms of consciousness. Most of us are, outside of the dream state, fairly solidly anchored in "consensus reality" with all its illusions of the solidity of material objects. But some among us are far more attuned to different types of information outside the narrow range of the five senses. These people often already have to work hard to not feel overwhelmed by this extrasensory data. Many of them probably don't need the crude battering ram of psychedelics to alter their consciousness, and quite a few of them have very highly tuned, delicate nervous systems that could suffer too much from such powerful disruption.

Tripping involves a very intense expenditure of energy. It's a bit like living a few months in a few hours. If one's preparations are sound, one can readily regroup and rebuild one's vitality in the days and weeks ahead. When a journey feels psychically important it can also be psycho-spiritually empowering and therefore also boost one's long-term energy level. But if one does it too often, it becomes very hard to recuperate fully from the loss of core energy. Outside of shamans and shaman trainees these journeys are best undertaken very infrequently. Also, the equivalent of a post-coital letdown is not at all uncommon for a few days following a trip, and one should be especially careful driving cars or bicycles or operating power tools or walking in traffic, as one may be quite a bit less coordinated than usual without realizing it, even if one feels fine and is still basking in the afterglow of a positive experience.

People with heart or liver problems should not take most of these substances. It's not a bad idea for those who do trip to take mild doses of gentle, liver-enhancing herbs for a few weeks before and after the experience, just to help soothe the liver, which has to work harder than usual to cleanse the system after such a shock. However, excessively big doses of such herbs following a trip could actually shock the liver and make you feel sick, so you might want to consult a skilled herbal adviser.

The qualitative difference between substances is a very complex subject to which I can't do justice in the context of this essay. I do tend to think there is greater safety in the use of those substances with long histories of human use, which most credible anthropological, psychological and medical studies done to date have shown do not cause physical harm (at least in their indigenous social context when used in the right doses with expert guidance). These substances include ayahuasca, San Pedro cactus, peyote and psilocybin-containing mushrooms (and probably synthetic psilocybin and mescaline as well). This doesn't mean these powerful substances aren't psychologically risky to experiment with, but they are most likely not inherently physiologically toxic in reasonable doses unless you have a weak liver or heart. Remember: the difference between a medicine and a poison is dosage.

The location should be very comfortable and pleasant--ideally out of urban areas in or near a beautiful natural setting. There should be a very low chance of being disturbed by strangers or unanticipated guests for 6 to 10 hours (depending on the substance). Everything one might need--warm clothing, water, post-trip nourishment, etc.--should be close at hand.

One must be absolutely certain of the pristine quality of the plant or substance and confident about its origin. Ideally, it should have come into one's possession in a manner that feels unambiguously bathed in the warm glow of positive intent.

One should be with a person or people one feels as unreservedly positive and warmly toward as possible. At least one person present should be highly experienced in this domain and a trusted figure.

Novices should prepare by asking some experienced voyagers what to expect and should ideally have read a cross-section of serious, intelligent literature on the topic, as well as thinking seriously about their reasons for undertaking such an inner journey.

One should ideally be in excellent health, eat a very clean diet for a few days beforehand and be on an empty stomach (or only eat very lightly) immediately beforehand.

When the time comes, one should consult one's intuition and take stock of the situation and stand down if it doesn't feel right. One should never cave in to peer group or other social pressure in this type of endeavor.

Tripping is unpredictable. Different people can have vastly different experiences, and the same person can have radically different experiences on different occasions. Psychedelics are nothing if not tricksters. It is fairly standard, though, for the journey to begin with a period of physical queasiness, discomfort and unpleasant sensations, mild to intense nausea (vomiting is almost a norm with ayahuasca and peyote), even vertigo. After that phase, some people, especially those on their first trip, go through a stage in which they suddenly find everything hysterically funny, as though they have just become aware of the "cosmic joke" of all existence.

However, it is also not uncommon for physical discomfort to become a "tunnel phase" of the trip that can be psychically confusing, disorienting, even terrifying, as one begins to lose one's usual psychological moorings. It is very helpful to expect this phase and to be prepared for it. Often "bad trips" result from a failure to negotiate this stage.

Tripping is unpredictable. Different people can have vastly different experiences, and the same person can have radically different experiences on different occasions. Psychedelics are nothing if not tricksters.
Depending on dosage, very frightening, hyper-realistic visions of archetypal monsters, demons or animals (often snakes or insects) can emerge, as can the terrors of losing one's sanity, of dying, and of never being able to come back to a normal state of consciousness. Most people are able to wait this out or are comforted by their guide(s) until a more luminous, joyous phase emerges. But it is far more productive to confront the fears and demons that can manifest at this stage with centered, steely courage, as such struggles can be powerfully healing and empowering experiences. Some also suggest these confrontations may be excellent preparation for navigating the "bardo" states at a later time.

Not everyone is capable of fearlessly and literally "facing down your demons" at this stage, and some are able to do it on some occasions but not on others. The large majority of people who can't pull it off will just pass through an unpleasant, perhaps somewhat frightening few hours and emerge otherwise mostly unscathed, although sometimes a "susto" (the term used in Hispanic folk medicine for a psycho-spiritual trauma) will linger for a while. If this condition lasts too long, it might require the professional help of someone trained in "exorcising" these types of psychic residues. This is not necessarily that big a deal. Nearly all of us carry plenty of sustos around with us. In modern psychological parlance, we're talking about the emotional traumas and wounding experiences from childhood on that help shape our personalities, including our neuroses and self-defeating behaviors. That said, if one suffered truly terrifying visions and is still marked by it weeks afterwards, it is good to work on healing that trauma sooner rather than later.

Those who don't experience a serious dark phase or who don't get stuck in it--fortunately, the large majority--ultimately emerge in the full-blown visionary state. This is usually characterized by radically altered awareness, some hyper-heightened senses, feelings of enhanced vitality, and incredibly vivid colors in both inner visions and outer hallucinations. Powerful feelings of all-encompassing love, ecstatic joy and boundless unity with all of life are not uncommon. People sometimes interpret these experiences according to their pre-existing beliefs, so that a pious Christian might have an emotionally charged vision of Christ or of angels, while a pagan witnesses nature spirits.

At times, on high doses, one can become completely immersed in entirely "other" or outright alien landscapes and even encounter what seem to be non-human intelligences. The higher the dose and the more powerful the experience, the more one loses one's usual sense of ego control and identity, and this can be frightening, especially if one resists it. This is another phase that can lead to a "bad trip" episode or can limit the benefits one can draw from the experience. Again, it is good to have anticipated this moment in one's preparation, so that one can at least faintly remember (or be reminded) that this phase was predicted and should not to be feared or fought but embraced. One literally has to surrender to what feels at the moment like possible death or psychic unraveling, with no guarantee of a return ticket. This is serious business. If you're not ready to face that type of feeling, it's smart to admit it and to avoid these experiences altogether.

This phase of the trip usually includes a period of peak experiences, which mark the farthest distance from routine consciousness one will get, after which a slow, gradual return to standard consciousness will take place over a few hours. On anything other than a mild dose, this peak period of an hour or two or three can be an incredibly exhilarating experience or a terrifying one, or a mixture of the two. During this stage, many people experience authentic, profound, and sometimes life-defining spiritual--or at least quasi-spiritual--insights. But these are usually very hard to verbalize. Many people in this phase make the mistake of thinking they have solved some of life's great mysteries in a way that can be explained cogently, but when they later look at their notes or try to describe their revelations, the results are usually gibberish or banal truisms. This is why tripping is the fodder of so much mockery by comedians.

There are some notable exceptions to this rule. But for most of us, it is best to realize that the power of the experience is precisely that it can take us to non- or meta-rational realms that, while being very worth visiting, are best not analyzed with our usual linguistic tools--especially during the experience or at least its peak. Hence one of my mantras during the apex of this sort of journey: "Surrender; shut up; don't analyze; leave words behind". At the very least, delay the attempt to analyze until later, when you have more perspective and the analytic part of your brain is back on duty.

Take it from me, tripping in the wrong setting when one is not sufficiently grounded or mature can be an extreme form of "hallucinogenic masochism".
Early on I had no fucking idea what I was doing and on occasion paid a high price. On one occasion, as I was sitting around tripping with them, I suddenly realized my first lover was sleeping with my best friend-a banal, archetypal cliché everyone needs to go through, but a terrible shock for an inexperienced, insecure, tormented 17-year-old nonetheless, never mind one on a massive dose of Clear Light. I ran out of the house I was in with no jacket on or money during a mid-winter blizzard, screaming and crying and hallucinating and wandered around totally lost in scary parts of the Bronx I didn't know at all. I somehow managed to beg subway fare and got home some 8 hours later nearly insane and frostbitten but miraculously not shot or in Bellevue Hospital. Sadly, there were quite a few nearly as traumatic episodes. Take it from me, tripping in the wrong setting when one is not sufficiently grounded or mature can be an extreme form of "hallucinogenic masochism".

Quite a bit later on, as I gained more experience with the years, I was interested in getting to deep, archetypal, "transpersonal" layers during the peaks. As such, I very consciously fought the urge to formulate thoughts in language as I felt that would hold me back. Of course, the desire to leave the analytic/linguistic domain behind depends on the goals one brings to the experience. Those attempting to use a trip to probe personal psychological issues, for example, would probably not seek to totally jettison the linguistic mode during their experience.

The psychedelic experience has profoundly influenced our culture as well as providing deeply meaningful experiences for many people. But it has also led to the proliferation of a wide range of very flaky delusional spiritual and social ideas--and a lot of very bad art and music as well. Without good preparation or guidance, these substances tend to simply amplify what's there, and if what's there is paranoia or simple-mindedness or a propensity to construct silly ideological edifices or new religions or to worship charismatic leaders, these are the types of things that will get ratcheted up.

The urge to find a pat set of beliefs that ties everything together and explains the world and gives us meaning is obviously not limited to psychedelic subcultures. But psychedelics do activate this mindset in very powerful ways. In my view this ideological or "spiritual inflation" is one of the most unfortunate aspects of the psychedelic experience, and one of its biggest cultural pitfalls. A genius and an imbecile might have similar visions, but the idiot won't know what to make of them. Or worse, an idiot who thinks he's a prophet might start a half-baked new religion or artistic or political movement. The psychedelic experience often induces radically unitary feelings of total love, total connectedness, etc. That's hard to reconcile with a reasoned, discerning approach to life. I would advocate suspending reason during the peak of a trip. But by all means do not neglect to re-integrate and re-embrace reason afterwards.

I would advocate suspending reason during the peak of a trip. But by all means do not neglect to re-integrate and re-embrace reason afterwards.
I know it's a challenge, but one must have both the capacity to feel loving unity and to rely on very acute bullshit detectors. They are both necessary, although they don't necessarily need to be operating at the same time. Part of the art of exquisite appropriateness in human life is to know when to activate which of our many capacities. Different levels of reality require different navigational skill-sets. Unsophisticated thinkers can generate very silly and even dangerous worldviews when they clumsily impose the supposedly profound lessons they have garnered during their mystical experiences onto all the more mundane spheres of life (and on everyone else). Sadly, the psychedelic experience provides potent fuel for this type of "category error". I'm not saying that it's wrong to be profoundly altered by a mystical or satori experience and for that new awareness to permeate and color one's daily life. What I'm warning against is the overly hasty and clumsy codification of paranormally obtained ideas into systems or facile ideologies.

These problems are not caused by the visions during trips. They arise in the interpretation and translation of these awesomely powerful experiences. As I said, psychedelics are trickster molecules. There is some common archetypal material that pops up frequently (some geometric patterns and animal imagery, for example) and each of the substances has its own signature effects. The geometry one perceives on LSD, for example, tends to be far more "grid-like" than the more sinuous forms one tends to perceive with the plant substances. But the specific content of the visions one will encounter is impossible to predict. The very nature of trickster visions is that they are impossible to completely categorize or pin down or interpret with absolute certainty. Part of their lesson, perhaps, is to teach humans to give up on absolute certainties and to realize that "reality" is not nearly as solid a concept as most of us think.

It is impossible to know if the surreal imagery one perceives in the hyper-awake but dreamlike visionary state is: a) "personal" psychological material projected outward, or b) information picked up from the "collective unconscious;" or c) actual communication with some "objective" other-than-human realm of intelligence. Whether one can even entertain the last two possibilities will depend on one's worldview, of course. Clearly the content of one's personal psyche and one's psychological state at the time of the trip will heavily color the tenor of the experience, but, subjectively, on a good dose, it certainly seems very, very convincing that one has ventured into realms that are far beyond one's personal unconscious. For example, it is very hard to trip and not come out of it far more inclined to view all of nature as vibrantly alive, conscious and responsive (as all indigenous cultures say). It's also hard not to hold a far more open-minded view of telepathic communication. After all, our leading scientists aren't even close to scratching the surface of what consciousness actually is or how it works, so claiming to be sure about what one has seen and where one has been, one way or the other, seems a tad arrogant.

Indigenous cultures with long histories of sacred plant use have developed far more predictable archetypal containers for visions. Individuals in such cultures are more likely to encounter spiritual entities in their visions that are familiar figures to them--like the jaguar or anaconda spirit in Amazonian shamanism, or the "mother of tobacco". With such figures, there are often precise protocols one must follow to obtain information or help in healing a patient. In fact, shamans know how to solicit those specific entities inside their visionary explorations. They also know how to modulate and shape and guide the visions of others as well through music or songs ("icaros") and other means.

Over hundreds of years of practice, perhaps even millennia, shamans have in a sense overlaid "maps" on this hidden, turbulent psychic territory. They are light years ahead of even the most experienced Western psychonaut in the degree of control they possess in navigating these states. That is why I recommend going to these people for really serious healing work. We are just fumbling around in comparison. But even traditional shamans know these trickster plants can't be controlled and are unpredictable and have to be treated with great respect and care and humility. Also, their "maps" are to some extent culture-specific. Different cultures produce different archetypal containers, so it would be pretty tough to argue that the non-human beings they encounter are without question "objective" entities with definitive forms. If they do possess some sort of intrinsic "reality," they are shape-shifters that manifest differently in different cultures and environments. In general I just don't think it's possible to know how "real" such entities are, but they sure are convincing when they're talking to you and even showing you stuff you didn't know that turns out to be verifiably true. I'm also not sure what the word "real" really means, though it does definitely hurt when I get kicked in the shins.

I advocate being open minded about all possibilities while avoiding definitive, ironclad interpretations. This approach can mark the difference between fascinating, intelligent, daring explorations and the simple-minded construction of half-baked theologies. Unfortunately, far too many people have very powerful experiences and then insist on taking their visions literally, so they wind up believing in the absolute, tangible reality of, say, nefarious insect-like aliens (a very common vision on psychedelics). I'm not trying at all to ridicule these types of visions (which I've experienced). I wouldn't make the facile assumption that all these types of visions are "just in our heads". I'm not even sure what that means. But I do recommend genuine open-minded agnosticism. The extraordinary content of psychedelic visions and experiences poses many incredibly interesting questions about consciousness, the nature of archetypal psychic realms, collective memory, etc. But, in my view, it's far more interesting to keep a "beginner's mind" about what it all means than to rush to erect pat systems.

We moderns have to live in a world largely ruled by scientific paradigms. These can be dogmatic in their refusal to entertain possibilities that don't fit snugly into their frameworks, but we cannot throw out science as a modern lingua franca lest we wind up with some far creepier religious fundamentalism. Those of us who risk exploring the mythopoetic and archetypal realms need to be very careful in order to avoid sounding absolutely bonkers. We can entertain wild conjecture when we are amongst ourselves behind closed doors, but it is best to remember that we are in marginal, rather tenuous subcultures. We don't do ourselves any favors when we make ourselves seem ridiculous by getting overly literal in interpreting what we see when we trip.

I advocate the ability to see the world through multiple lenses. When we trip, we can wear our mystical animist hats and grunt naked in a river. When we fight against polluters to clean up that same river, we need to come well groomed with nice graphs and plenty of rigorous data. We too must become very clever shape shifters, if we are to survive.

Different Approaches and Goals
There are a number of different styles of psychedelic use in our postmodern cultural landscape. They are not easy to cordon off from each other, as one could, for example, easily be hoping for psychological, spiritual and artistic insights all during the same journey. Many psychedelic users will have experience with more than one or even all of the approaches I describe below, so I'm not trying to give the impression that these are totally separate subcultures. Nonetheless I think it's useful to think these distinct styles of use through.

Terence McKenna, the most famous and eloquent advocate of the psychedelic experience in recent decades, was a strong advocate of taking a mega-dose and lying down in a dark and silent room. This is not for the faint of heart. Terence was strongly influenced by Plotinus and other Neo-Platonic mystics and was above all interested in gnosis, a quest for the deepest possible knowledge--about consciousness, the origins and meaning of life, the fate of the species. I don't think this type of quest is something very many people are intellectually or psychically equipped to undertake. How many could manage to bring back information that they could productively digest or could cogently explain to others? But that doesn't mean there might not be a few hardy souls who would benefit from the McKenna method.

I personally can't accept many of Terence's more speculative theories, and I don't think he managed to bring back a fully formed new paradigm from his forays. But he certainly brought forth a plethora of brilliant insights, inimitable flights of linguistic creativity and some extraordinary ideas and stories--and that's nothing to sneeze at. Nonetheless, his trips amplified and colored genius that was already there; they didn't create his genius. Terence was a delightful guy, but also a strange mix of romantic mystic and mildly misanthropic cynic, so solo tripping in a dark room suited him temperamentally: the heroic philosopher or postmodern shaman sailing forth alone on stormy psychic seas to wrest the Truth from the hidden realms and bring it back to the tribe.

Some writers, thinkers, musicians and visual artists have been known to use smaller doses of psychedelic substances to overcome creative blockages or to introduce more fluidity and spontaneity in their creative process. This is another kind of solo use, but very different than Terence's all-out quest for gnosis. I have seen this work well at certain times for some creative professionals, but I've also seen some start to rely on it too much, with the result that their health and clarity of mind begin to suffer. Even small doses of psychedelics tax the body and nervous system quite heavily.

The use of psychedelics en masse by attendees at large counter-cultural celebratory gatherings has been a common phenomenon in our culture for the past forty or so years. These events probably started with the Merry Pranksters' "Acid Tests" in the mid-Sixties, grew in various California rock clubs (Family Dog, Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore, etc.) and expanded into the large "be-ins" and music festivals that grew all over the world. This hippie subculture lingered with the traveling Deadhead phenomenon and the later jam band scenes as well as the annual Rainbow gatherings. In the mid-'70s, low doses of blotter LSD were widely used by disco aficionados as party-aids. Then Ecstasy use took off in the '80s, leading to the explosion of the rave scene, which grew into massive urban street parties in Europe and beach parties in Ibiza, Goa, and Thailand. These days the Burning Man Festival is probably the most cutting-edge and creative manifestation of this postmodern tribal gathering impulse.

If someone really insists on tripping at a mass event, I strongly recommend moderation in dosage, and giving careful thought to making sure they have a good support network on hand.
Part of me can't help but admire the exuberance and vitality of many of these cultural phenomena. That said, it seems to me that there is a greater psychological risk tripping among large groups of people. It's helpful if it's a very well run event, with many experienced people around, including good medical tents staffed by doctors and nurses well versed in handling overdoses and bad trips. But that is far from always the case. Because psychedelics make the psyche incredibly sensitive to other people's thoughts, the sheer noise of so many minds broadcasting at such close range is a lot to have to handle. That's one reason many feel it's best to get out of urban areas to trip. Granted, there is a very powerful feeling generated when so many people get in sync and share an experience, but that can be achieved without drugs, which is one reason that spiritual traditions employ group meditations.

I realize that nothing I say is likely to change people's behavior, but my advice is that if one is serious about using the psychedelic experience to explore consciousness deeply, it's best done in more intimate settings. If someone really insists on tripping at a mass event, I strongly recommend moderation in dosage, and giving careful thought to making sure they have a good support network on hand.

A significantly different approach to both the mass gathering and the solo night journey is to trip in the wilderness with a group of friends, during the day, immersing oneself fully in the beauty of the natural world. This type of experience was an archetypal signature behavior at the peak of the hippie era, and may in fact have been a hippie invention, since every indigenous tradition I know of uses nocturnal rituals. Some of these hippie excursions took place at night as well, and to this day heirs of these practices continue to gather both by day and night in small groups in natural settings.

This method of tripping had a very rarely discussed effect: it played, in my opinion, a not insignificant role in helping boost the level of passion in the environmental movement. Many young people forged deep, quasi-pantheistic emotional bonds with the natural world during such forays, and some of them became activists or life-long supporters of environmental causes.

This mode of tripping at times contributed to an intense collective bonding among groups of friends, who were perhaps unconsciously seeking to recapture the type of tribal solidarity their distant ancestors might have experienced. In terms of evolution, the small pack primate experience is really what we--like our chimp and bonobo cousins--are most comfortable with. This emergence of groups of friends as essential support networks was not totally new, but it took on major importance in an age in which nuclear and extended families were being radically challenged. These loose groups also gave rise to formal communal organizations. While most communes disbanded, the importance of youthful peer groups and tight networks of friends has lingered and now seems to be an established norm that no one questions. The communal psychedelic escapade did not create that phenomenon, but I would argue that it radically boosted it.

As early as the late nineteenth century, in pre-psychoanalytic Europe, circles of early investigators of human consciousness experimented with mescaline. In the 1950s, LSD was used as an aid in psychotherapy by pioneers such as Humphry Osmond in Canada, Stan Grof in Prague, and Oscar Janiger in Hollywood, whose most famous patient was Cary Grant. A clandestine but very extensive therapeutic subculture using the drug MDMA ("Ecstasy") flourished in California in the 1980s, although in my view MDMA, which does not produce visions and is far more predictable than substances like LSD or mushrooms, is not a true psychedelic.

Some of these various practitioners reported good results over the years, especially for patients dealing with alcoholism or depression. But most of their reports are anecdotal because governments around the world shut down nearly all the research in this field decades ago. A few brave souls such as Dr. Rick Strassman, Dr. Michael Mithoefer, and Dr. Charles Grob at UCLA have persisted and have been able to get permission to reinvigorate serious research on human subjects, but funding for such research is feeble and permission still somewhat difficult to obtain, so the likelihood that some psychedelics could become legally used in therapeutic contexts seems low for now.

If there are currently any underground therapists working with patients with MDMA or psychedelics, I don't know about them. There are quite a few therapists who emerged from psychedelic and/or shamanic subcultures who are treating patients singly or in groups using legal methods of consciousness alteration (drumming, breathwork, etc.). The best of the traditional shamanic/indigenous and syncretic ritual groups do seem to help some people with psychological as well as physical healing.

The psychedelic experience can serve as a potent "truth serum". If there are important issues you are ignoring in your life, they are very likely to torment you during a trip. A trip can be a very rigorous way to check up on your own current levels of self-awareness and self-deception. If you are fundamentally unhappy and unfulfilled and you haven't been admitting it to yourself, this will become painfully obvious. This realization can be very unpleasant. It can also be very helpful, but it won't help if you're not equipped to honestly face the feedback or seek to correct the problem.

However, this brings up a profound conundrum. Psychedelics tend to generate utopian aspirations. They bring human consciousness into intense, extreme, profoundly emotional states of mystical union with all of life. They tend to make petty social conventions, bourgeois propriety, and hypocritical social arrangements seem utterly absurd. When adolescents take psychedelics, this reaction is even more pronounced, as the rejection of hypocrisy is a hallmark of youthful consciousness to begin with. The problem is that, whatever New Age philosophies may claim, our social order demands a large amount of hypocrisy, compromise, and abnegation of one's creative impulses. Some of this is lamentable, but some of it may be absolutely necessary for the maintenance of a functioning mass-scale society. The psychedelic experience can be intensely wrenching in the stark contradiction it offers between the exalted visionary state and the painful superficiality, alienation, soullessness and sterility of modern life. Facing the truth and being able to do something about it can be two different things.

Building a solid foundation should be your job, not that of a visionary drug.
That said, I think it can be useful to engage in this ingestion of "truth serum" if one is mature enough to prepare for it and to digest the feedback intelligently. If this type of psychological self-analysis is your primary goal in tripping, I would advise taking a smaller dose than one would consume if the desire is to reach more transpersonal realms. I would also recommend doing a lot of preparatory reflection about your life. I realize that in most cases people just trip without a precise goal in mind, and they experience a wide range of visions and emotional states and perhaps garner some insights about different spheres of life. Also, one may plan to focus on one goal, but the experience may take you in an entirely different, unanticipated direction. This is actually very common, or even the norm. As I said, these substances are "tricksters". And if you aren't ready to laugh at yourself and follow the tricksters where they want to take you, the joke may very well be on you.

My experience is that it will be very difficult to obtain useful archetypal, transpersonal knowledge if one is not facing one's inner psychological reality honestly. The content of your trip is going to stay tethered to your own unhappiness. As I said, this can be useful, but I advocate initially dealing with as many of your psychological problems as possible with other means. Try to come to the experience with as much centeredness and self-acceptance as possible, perhaps achieved through rigorous self-examination, meditative disciplines, or therapy (if it helps).

My own bias is that the awesomely powerful tools of the psychedelics are best used to get beyond our own little issues. But you have put some hard work into dealing with these little issues first, or you won't get much benefit trying to navigate the terrifying but exhilarating vistas of the archetypal realms. Building a solid foundation should be your job, not that of a visionary drug. Your preliminary work is to make yourself as thoughtful, disciplined, fulfilled, self-observing, open-minded, discerning, courageous, centered, compassionate, considerate, well informed, engaged, responsible, and healthy as possible. This will increase the chances that you will be able to acquire useful self-knowledge or transpersonal wisdom in a psychedelic experience. That doesn't mean you have to somehow become "enlightened" or free of neurosis (who is?) before tripping. It just means that it's better to show yourself and the Universe that you're a serious person willing to do some work on yourself. If you do that first, you might really deserve some glimpses of the "dancing, drunken universe" in all its resplendent glory.

Revision History #
  • v1.0 - Nov 15, 2007 - JP - Original article published on