Some Ruminations and Tips on Tripping
From forty years of personal experience
v1.0 - Nov 15, 2007
Citation: JP. "Some Ruminations and Tips on Tripping". Erowid.org. Nov 15, 2007. Erowid.org/psychoactives/basics/basics_article3.shtml.
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.
- Sacred Plant Use for Healing
- Traditional Way (and Hybrids)
- The Dark Side
- OK, on to "Postmodern" Use
- Who Should Not Trip?
- Physical Health Considerations
- Differences Between Substances
- General Guidelines/Remarks
- Stages of the Experience
- Psychological and Idealogical Perils at the Peak
- Hazard of Spiritual Inflation
- Different Approaches and Goals
- McKenna's Way: The "Heroic Dose" Alone in the Dark
- Small Dose Solo: As an Artistic/Creative Stimulus
- Tripping in a Crowd: Be-ins, Festivals, Raves
- The Postmodern Tribal/Solar Pantheistic Way
- As a Therapeutic Aid
- Final Thoughts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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 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.
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 GoalsThere 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.
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.
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.
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.
The Postmodern Tribal/Solar Pantheistic Way: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.
In the Sun/In the Woods
In the Sun/In the Woods
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.
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.
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.
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.