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CHAPTER FOUR TRAVELOGUE Journeying Underground MY PLAN HAD BEEN TO volunteer for one of the Hopkins or NYU experimental trials. If I was going to have my own guided psychedelic journey, a harrowing prospect under any circumstances, I very much liked the idea of traveling in the company of trained professionals close by a hospital emergency room. But the aboveground researchers were no longer working with “healthy normals.” This meant that if I hoped to have the journey I had heard so much about, it would have to take place underground. Could I find a guide willing to work with a writer who planned to publish an account of his journey, and would that person be someone I felt sufficiently comfortable with and confident in to entrust with my mind? The whole endeavor was fraught with uncertainty and entailed risks of several kinds—legal, ethical, psychological, and even literary. For how do you put into words an experience said to be ineffable?

“Curiosity” is an accurate but tepid word for what drove me. By now, I had interviewed at length more than a dozen people who had gone on guided psychedelic journeys, and it was impossible to listen to their stories without wondering what the journey would be like for one’s self. For many of them, these were among the two or three most profound experiences of their lives, in several cases changing them in positive and lasting ways. To become more “open”—especially at this age, when the grooves of mental habit have been etched so deep as to seem inescapable—was an appealing prospect. And then there was the possibility, however remote, of having some kind of spiritual epiphany. Many of the people I’d interviewed had started out stone-cold materialists and atheists, no more spiritually developed than I, and yet several had had “mystical experiences” that left them with the unshakable conviction that there was something more to this world than we know—a “beyond” of some kind that transcended the material universe I presume to constitute the whole shebang. I thought often about one of the cancer patients I interviewed, an avowed atheist who had nevertheless found herself “bathed in God’s love.”

Yet not everything I’d heard from these people made me eager to follow them onto the couch. Many had been borne by psilocybin deep into their pasts, a few of them traveling all the way back to scenes of unremembered childhood trauma. These journeys had been wrenching, shaking the travelers to their core, but they had been cathartic too. Clearly these medicines—as guides both above- and belowground invariably call the drugs they administer—powerfully stir the psychic pot, surfacing all sorts of repressed material, some of it terrifying and ugly. Did I really want to go there?

No!—to be perfectly honest. You should know I have never been one for deep or sustained introspection. My usual orientation is more forward than back, or down, and I generally prefer to leave my psychic depths undisturbed, assuming they exist. (There’s quite enough to deal with up here on the surface; maybe that’s why I became a journalist rather than a novelist or poet.) All that stuff down there in the psychic basement has been stowed there for a reason, and unless you’re looking for something specific to help solve a problem, why would anyone willingly go down those steps and switch on that light?

People generally think of me as a fairly even-keeled and psychologically sturdy person, and I’ve played that role for so long now—in my family as a child, in my family as an adult, with my friends, and with my colleagues—that it’s probably an accurate enough characterization. But every so often, perhaps in the wee-hour throes of insomnia or under the influence of cannabis, I have found myself tossed in a psychic storm of existential dread so dark and violent that the keel comes off the boat, capsizing this trusty identity. At such times, I begin seriously to entertain the possibility that somewhere deep beneath the equable presence I present, there exists a shadow me made up of forces roiling, anarchic, and potentially mad. Just how thin is the skin of my sanity? There are times when I wonder. Perhaps we all do. But did I really want to find out? R. D. Laing once said there are three things human beings are afraid of: death, other people, and their own minds. Put me down as two for three. But there are moments when curiosity gets the better of fear. I guess for me such a moment had arrived.

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