If you were raised any time between about 1970 and now you were probably taught that psychedelics are bad and fall into the same category as heroin or meth. That wasn’t always the case. In fact, it’s coming to light that they can be a safe and very effective way to elicit major growth and life changes. They can be used as a way to strengthen relationships, find life purpose, challenge self-limiting beliefs and even help treat depression, anxiety and addiction. Here is the tragic thing. Psychedelics have been a part of human history before we even have written history yet it was only in the 1960s that a group of people scared of change decided to lump them into the dangerous drug category despite having no evidence to make that assertion.
A Brief and Incomplete History of Psychedelics.
A weird quirk in humans is that we seem to always seek out altered states of consciousness. Every culture in the world has found some way to alter their subjective reality. This has been done from a wide variety of sources such as iboga, mushrooms, toad venom, alcohol, marijuana, breathing rituals and the almost endless list of DMT containing plants. It’s profound enough that there is even a ‘stoned ape’ theory in which the rapid growth in brain size is attributed to the use of mind altering substances. This, of course, is highly debated.
Many prehistoric cave art bears a strong resemblance to the experiences of people undergoing a psychedelic experience. In fact, cave art found in California, which is considered definitive proof of psychedelic prehistoric art, closely resembles cave art found throughout prehistoric European caves.
The dedication we have had to finding these tools for achieving an altered state of consciousness is very impressive.
In Scandinavia and Asia there grows a psychedelic mushroom called the fly agaric(it looks like the mushroom from Mario). The problem is it is toxic to humans. The reindeer herders who traveled the area figured out that it is not toxic to their reindeer and if the reindeer eats the mushroom then humans can consume their urine safely. Gross, but it certainly shows dedication.
In the Himalayan mountains there are cliff dwelling bees whose honey has psychedelic properties(presumably from the plants they pollinate). Imagine climbing a tall cliff to steal honey from bees just to get high.
In the southwest of the United States and into Mexico exists a toad that produces venom on it’s back to ward off predators. At some point someone said “Hey, let’s collect that stuff and smoke it.”. The venom contains a chemical called DMT which causes a rather intense and short-lived psychedelic experience.
The Amazon is the most botanically diverse place on the planet but the natives figured out that if they take 1 particular plant, which is useless on it’s own, and cook it for a few hours with another random plant it produces a psychedelic experience. The concoction is known as ayahuasca and has been used for thousands of years.
Most of these methods were lost, overlooked or hidden from modern Western culture up until the 1950s until psilocybin mushrooms, which I will refer to as just mushrooms from here on out, were introduced. They were met with open arms and quickly made their way into the psychotherapy space. Psychotherapists were astounded at the efficacy when used in a therapeutic environment. It was said that one psychedelic experience was like having 10 years of talk therapy in one session. For the cultures where these medicines came from they would not be surprised because they were commonly used as healing tools or for spirit quests(aka finding purpose). There was about to be a renaissance in mental health treatment.
And then the 1960s culture clash happened. We will avoid the finger pointing but ultimately a wide variety of plant medicines were automatically relegated to ‘hard drug’ status. Despite the strong recommendation of experts, psychedelics were made illegal. This was the start of the War on Drugs which has since ultimately been considered a failure.
While an underground psychedelic therapy scene developed this ultimately pushed psychedelics into recreational status for many users. It also halted the study of psychedelics for mental health for 50 years.
But things are changing.
What’s going on now?
Over the past few years the benefits of psychedelics have been making its way to mainstream. Studies have resumed and the results have been astounding. One study using MDMA to treat PTSD has a 90% success rate after just a few experiences. It actually was a runner up for a Nobel prize. Ketamine clinics are popping up all over and we have a psilocybin medication that is currently in phase 3 trials(as of January 2022). Traveling to countries that allow psychedelic retreats is becoming more and more popular. Many places are decriminalizing psychedelics because the data supports that they are safe. Ultimately we are restarting the renaissance that began in the 1950s.
What substances are we talking about when referring to psychedelics?
While the list could be much longer these are the most commonly used ones. I plan on deep diving into each of those down the road but for now there is your list.
How do they work?
We are going to avoid sciencey talk for the most part but basically our brains are considered plastic… which means they can change. Every time we think a thought we strengthen a neural circuit. 90% of our thoughts today are the same as yesterday so we are constantly making our routine thoughts harder and harder to escape. Over time our brains become more rigid and often this means our mental bad habits become more and more strong. Our brains become our own personal echo chamber. It’s hard to change our minds because the ruts we make run so deep.
A psychedelic experience, when done under the right conditions, fills on those ruts and makes our mind more open to change. This is why it is so effective as a catalyst for personal growth and change.
During the journey you may find yourself having epiphany after epiphany as your mind’s defenses drop and you are open to challenging your own beliefs. After an experience it can feel like a million doors in your mind open up and you have endless possibilities where you didn’t know possibilities existed. It can be overwhelming which is why I suggest working with someone who can help you integrate your experiences and help you make lasting changes in your life. While psychedelics can open up more paths it is still up to you to walk down them.
Now, let’s talk about the common concerns. I want to start off by saying that my bias is obviously heavily in favor of using psychedelics for personal growth. For the bulk of my life I was a straight-laced software engineer. I tried marijuana twice as a teen but it really wasn’t my thing. For me, after 25 years of modern medical science failing me in the mental health department, I was desperate and finally tried mushrooms. The results were great but I am not telling my story right now, I am simply stating my bias.
The first concern many people have with these substances is are they safe? While the human engineered substances, such as MDMA and ketamine, can have some issues if you use them too much the other substances have a very low risk. In fact, alcohol is MANY times more dangerous than these substances. It’s more or less impossible to overdose on mushrooms. Even LSD is very difficult to overdose on. As long as you take care to be responsible the risk is rather low. The only exception is if you have a risk of schizophrenia which is often considered a potential issue but this theory isn’t confirmed.
What about addiction?
These medicines could be considered anti-addictive. For example, if you consumed mushrooms today you would not have an urge to do mushrooms again for some time. The profound experience is enough to self-regulate. Even if you do want to consume them again your tolerance goes up so fast that by the 3rd day you are just eating a vegetable with no notable effects. Additionally, these medicines are often used to treat addiction. Bill Watson, the gentleman who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, actually wanted to give each member LSD because he found it so good at treating addiction. There are ibogaine clinics in Mexico that specializes in helping people treat opiate addiction and their results are astounding.
What about the legality? This area can be a bit fuzzy and certainly varies based on location. In the United States Native American churches can use psychedelics as part of religious freedom. Non-indigenous people are able to join these churches. There is actually a publicly operated ayahuasca center in Orlando, FL. You can also obtain them from an illegal underground scene but if you are like me you would of had no idea how to do that.
If the legality scares you then your best bet is flying to a country that embraces using these substances such as ones in Central or South America.
That wraps up my quick intro to psychedelics. I will be providing a lot more in depth material in future articles but if you want more information on them immediately I can suggest two books.
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan is a great look into a variety of plant medicines. Michael Pollan is conservative in the sense he didn’t use psychedelics before researching this book and while he strongly believes in them being a powerful tool he still has a restrained outlook on their usage. Basically I am saying he isn’t a hippy.
While I suggest always working with an expert for your experience if you choose to go it alone, James Fadiman’s Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide is a must have. It’s very important to study the concept of Set and Setting.
If you think you would benefit from psychedelic integration I offer integration coaching so feel free to reach out to me. Generally after you go on a plant medicine journey you might have trouble processing, making sense or just feel overwhelmed(in an oddly positive way). Get the most out of your experience and let someone help you. While a psychedelic experience might completely alter your world view, nothing has changed for anyone else so your relationships, work and others expectations of you have not changed. If you don’t intentionally make changes in your life after your experience you will find yourself back where you started.
Stay tuned for more articles on using psychedelics for personal development.