(Reading time: 5 minutes, 1000 words)
I first took LSD when I was 15. A few friends and I each took a dose and spent the next eight hours riding bikes through town, laughing and wondering and shuddering at the strangeness of the world we had stepped into.
Of course, the world didn’t change. But my perceptions of it did. Time moved slowly and rhythmically; colors and objects blended, making my surroundings surreal; the world became fluid yet geometrical, consisting of symmetrical, mathematically uniform, flowing designs; it was intensely nuanced, as though each little spec of existence had layers upon layers of meaning and mystery; everything seemed to breathe, which is maybe why everything seemed alive; and to every living thing, I felt connected.
To say that my life was changed is no overstatement. It’s not that a single experience about that first encounter with LSD changed my life, but the tiny alteration of my beliefs about the universe as a result of that experience has had huge impact on the course of my life.
When friends ask what the psychedelic experience is like, I often tell them that because one’s perceptions of reality change, so too does reality. Unfortunately, the “loss of reality” often deters would-be partakers from taking the psychedelic plunge. It is this phenomenon, however, that is most valuable about the psychedelic trip.
Despite going down the metaphysical rabbit hole, many people report that the psychedelic experience feels more real than the sober state, as if psychedelics unveil existence as it really is. This “more real” state is comprised of the sense of unity and love. But this sense of unification causes troubling, albeit glorious, questions. Do we perceive the world, or project it? Does matter or consciousness have primacy? Are the two even distinguishable? Often it is said, “the mind is what the brain does.” Drugs like LSD and psilocybin awaken one to a possible reversal of this notion, even if only phenomenally. One gets a sense of what Rumi means when he says, “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”
In recent years, scientists have begun to research the effects of psilocybin using brain scans. Contrary to expectation, instead of seeing increased activity in the brain, they see a decrease. This cessation of activity occurs in interrelated regions of the brain and the pathways that enable communication between them. Normally, the brain makes use of association and compartmentalizing (think of a vast filing system) to understand and conceptualize the world and self. Perception in its purity, however, makes no distinctions. By perpetually filing away qualia, the brain hinders synesthesia and metaphysical sensibility, but consciousness without conceptual barriers affords it.
Spiritualists have spoken of the interconnectedness of the universe for millennia. They speak of a divine, conscious connection, as opposed to a reductive, materialist connection like scientists do. And though their claims are backed primarily by intuition, a human faculty that is largely discredited in the secular world, they still may have substance. Science, after all, began as a feeling—a feeling that phenomena could be explained naturally.
Quantum mechanics suggests that the distinction between the internal and external world isn’t as simple as once thought. Actually, that’s understating it. It’s always been complex, only now it is much more complex. If there is any scientific “discovery” that seems to support the idea of a unified objective and subjective world, it is the Measurement Problem. Essentially this problem suggests that consciousness may affect the material universe, at least on a subatomic level. But, according to the laws of physics, if matter is affected subatomically, then it must also be affected macrocosmically. This doesn’t necessarily denote the existence of an all-pervading consciousness, or that human consciousness is derivative of some supernatural spirit, but it does render the subjective/objective distinction unclear. It’s no wonder one might assert that the dreamlike state induced by psychedelics is a sort of “tapping-into” deeper reality. They’ve got contemporary science lending credibility to the claim.
Science and mysticism aside, how does this all equate to wisdom? Uncertainty. To use the filing system analogy again, when we think we are certain, we continually file away input. All of our experiences can be easily qualified, even if ignorantly so. Our mental library becomes static, losing vitality. When uncertain, we build more cabinets, we reorganize and re-label the old, and we write new files. New perspectives cultivate new experiences, even if exposed to the same stimuli. And experience, though not sufficient for wisdom, is certainly necessary. The key is in how we respond.
As mentioned, panic can be a product of the psychedelic equation. The sense of unity I’ve described often comes after atrophic fear. The sublimity of the psychedelic realm, whether “real” or not, comes when one lets go. And that’s the point.
Though tripping gives rise to uncertainty, it only leads to wisdom through succumbing. One can, through fear and with difficulty, resist the destabilization of their mental constructs. But to come out on the other side wiser, one must have the courage to let go. Psychedelics have a way of commandeering openness. Whereas certainty seems to serve us well in everyday life, wonder is the attitude necessary for survival in the psychedelic realm. In a nutshell, openness seems to cultivate wisdom, and psychedelics cultivate openness through a forced examination of one’s preconceived ideas, so much so that it becomes difficult to draw a line between the self and the universe, between imagination and reality.
Since that first affair with LSD 20 years ago I have taken psychedelics dozens of times. Each time I feel as though I walk away with less knowledge, yet greater understanding. The experience isn’t always completely pleasant, but then pleasantry isn’t really conducive to learning. Regardless, I will say this: nothing can shine a light on the self (assuming there is such a thing) like psychedelics can. And seeing how the self and the world are nearly indistinguishable, maybe one really can change the world by changing their self. Which, so I've heard, is a bit of wisdom.