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Not only did my guides create a setting in which I felt safe enough to surrender to the psychedelic experience, but they also helped me to make sense of it afterward. Just as important, they helped me to see there was something here worth making sense of. This is by no means self-evident. It is all too easy to dismiss what unfolds in our minds during a psychedelic journey as simply a “drug experience,” and that is precisely what our culture encourages us to do. Matt Johnson made this point the first time we spoke: “Let’s say you have some nineteen-year-olds taking mushrooms at a party. One of them has a profound experience. He’s come to understand what God is, or his connection to the universe. What do his friends say? ‘Oh, man, you had too much last night! No more mushrooms for you!’

“‘Were you drinking or on drugs?’ is what our culture says when you have a powerful experience.”

Yet even a moment’s reflection tells you that attributing the content of the psychedelic experience to “drugs” explains virtually nothing about it. The images and the narratives and the insights don’t come from nowhere, and they certainly don’t come from a chemical. They come from inside our minds,* and at the very least have something to tell us about that. If dreams and fantasies and free associations are worth interpreting, then surely so is the more vivid and detailed material with which the psychedelic journey presents us. It opens a new door on one’s mind.

And about that my psychedelic journeys have taught me a great many interesting things. Many of these were the kinds of things one might learn in the course of psychotherapy: insights into important relationships; the outlines of fears and desires ordinarily kept out of view; repressed memories and emotions; and, perhaps most interesting and useful, a new perspective on how one’s mind works.

This, I think, is the great value of exploring non-ordinary states of consciousness: the light they reflect back on the ordinary ones, which no longer seem quite so transparent or so ordinary. To realize, as William James concluded, that normal waking consciousness is but one of many potential forms of consciousness—ways of perceiving or constructing the world—separated from it by merely “the filmiest of screens,” is to recognize that our account of reality, whether inward or outward, is incomplete at best. Normal waking consciousness might seem to offer a faithful map to the territory of reality, and it is good for many things, but it is only a map—and not the only map. As to why these other modes of consciousness exist, we can only speculate. Most of the time, it is normal waking consciousness that best serves the interests of survival—and is most adaptive. But there are moments in the life of an individual or a community when the imaginative novelties proposed by altered states of consciousness introduce exactly the sort of variation that can send a life, or a culture, down a new path.

For me, the moment I recognized the tenuousness and relativity of my own default consciousness came that afternoon on Fritz’s mountaintop, when he taught me how to enter a trance state by means of nothing more than a pattern of rapid breathing and the sounds of rhythmic drumming. Where in the world has that been all my life? This is nothing Freud or any number of psychologists and behavioral economists haven’t told us, but the idea that “normal” consciousness is but the tip of a large and largely uncharted psychic iceberg is now for me something more than a theory; the hidden vastness of the mind is a felt reality.

I don’t mean to suggest I have achieved this state of ego-transcending awareness, only tasted it. These experiences don’t last, or at least they didn’t for me. After each of my psychedelic sessions came a period of several weeks in which I felt noticeably different—more present to the moment, much less inclined to dwell on what’s next. I was also notably more emotional and surprised myself on several occasions by how little it took to make me tear up or smile. I found myself thinking about things like death and time and infinity, but less in angst than in wonder. (I spent an unreasonable amount of time reflecting on how improbable and fortunate it is to be living here and now at the frontier of two eternities of nonexistence.) All at once and unexpectedly, waves of compassion or wonder or pity would wash over me.

This was a way of being I treasured, but, alas, every time it eventually faded. It’s difficult not to slip back into the familiar grooves of mental habit; they are so well worn; the tidal pull of what the Buddhists call our “habit energies” is difficult to withstand. Add to this the expectations of other people, which subtly enforce a certain way of being yourself, no matter how much you might want to attempt another. After a month or so, it was pretty much back to baseline.

But not quite, not completely. For much like the depressed patients I interviewed in London, who described being nourished and even inspired by their furloughs from the cage of depression, the experience of some other way of being in the world survives in memory, as a possibility and a destination.

For me, the psychedelic experience opened a door to a specific mode of consciousness that I can now occasionally recapture in meditation. I’m speaking of a certain cognitive space that opens up late in a trip or in the midst of a mild one, a space where you can entertain all sorts of thoughts and scenarios without reaching for any kind of resolution. It somewhat resembles hypnagogic consciousness, that liminal state perched on the edge of sleep when all kinds of images and scraps of story briefly surface before floating away. But this is sustained, and what comes up can be clearly recalled. And though the images and ideas that appear are not under your direct control, but rather seem to be arriving and departing of their own accord, you can launch a topic or change it, like a channel. The ego is not entirely absent—you haven’t been blasted into particles, or have returned from that particular state—but the stream of consciousness is taking its own desultory course, and you are bobbing and drifting along with it, looking neither forward nor back, immersed in the currents of being rather than doing. And yet a certain kind of mental work is getting done, and occasionally I have emerged from the state with usable ideas, images, or metaphors.*

My psychedelic adventures familiarized me with this mental territory, and, sometimes, not always, I find I can return to it during my daily meditation. I don’t know if this is exactly where I’m supposed to be when I’m meditating, but I’m always happy to find myself floating in this particular mental stream. I would never have found it if not for psychedelics. This strikes me as one of the great gifts of the experience they afford: the expansion of one’s repertoire of conscious states.

Just because the psychedelic journey takes place entirely in one’s mind doesn’t mean it isn’t real. It is an experience and, for some of us, one of the most profound a person can have. As such, it takes its place as a feature in the landscape of a life. It can serve as a reference point, a guidepost, a wellspring, and, for some, a kind of spiritual sign or shrine. For me, the experiences have become landmarks to circle around and interrogate for meaning—meanings about myself, obviously, but also about the world. Several of the images that appeared in the course of my trips I think about all the time, hoping to unwrap what feels like a gift of meaning—from where or what or whom, I cannot say. There was that steel pylon hovering over the landscape of self. Or the image of my grandfather’s skull staring back at me in Mary’s mirror. The majestic but now hollowed-out trees in which my parents appeared to me, liable to topple in the next windstorm. Or the inky well of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, resonating with Bach’s warm embrace of death. But there is one other image I haven’t shared that I keep thinking must contain some important teaching, even as it continues to mystify me.

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