Going back for a university reunion: self-esteem, hallucinogens, wonder & the transpersonal (4th post)
Last updated on 6th June 2019
"Who will prefer the jingle of jade pendants if he once has heard stone growing in a cliff?" Lao Tzu
"To stand and stare, to watch the rising sun, fills me with such calm happiness, I am sure I have
dwindled away too much time on inessentials." Diana Gault (when dying of cancer)
I have never been to any kind of school, university or medical college reunion in my life, but it looks like that's going to change pretty soon. I'm on the train down to Cambridge, autumn sunshine, settling down after all the rushing around getting ready to take this weekend off. For me this is an exercise in "emotional archaeology", digging down, looking at the memories & emotions that are stirred up by going back to a university I was at over forty years ago. In the weeks leading up to this trip, I have already written three blog posts. In the second of this triad, I talked about emotion-focused narrative therapy's encouragement to tell one's story using the three lenses of external "what happened?", internal "what did I feel?" and reflexive "what did it mean?" and I quoted Salman Rushdie: "Those who do not have the power over the story that dominates their live - the power to retell it, reexperience it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change - truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts."
My mother saved the letters that I wrote home regularly from university and before she died she gave them all back to me. Rereading them, chewing the memories over, leads me to wonder just how accurately I really remember what happened. So a "story" I have told myself over the years is that quite a strong contribution to changing stream from being a fairly conventional student to being much more of a late sixties hippie, was an avoidant attachment "puffing up" ... a way of protecting my self-esteem when straight comparisons with other students' wealth, class, intelligence, sporting ability, looks, and so on made me feel a rather small fish in a pretty big pool (in contrast to school where it was a lot easier to tell myself a "story" that I was pretty special and keep my sense of self-worth buoyant). This comparison game is a well-documented problem with the whole notion of self-esteem - see for example Jennifer Crocker & colleagues "The costly pursuit of self-esteem: Implications for self-regulation". Now revisiting the university letters and the memories & feelings they throw up, it doesn't seem so simple.
Besides looking through the letters, I have been exploring the memories in a series of other ways as well. One has been to briefly go back into therapy ... or at least set up a series of peer sessions with another psychotherapist where we each get the chance to play the roles of both therapist & client. Recording, reviewing & discussing the sessions is a good training exercise, but - more than that - they have been an opportunity to dig down into my memories of school and university more deeply. One "dialogue exercise" I tried involved "play acting" myself in my early twenties meeting and talking with myself in my early sixties. Naively I'd imagined it would be pretty one way traffic, with the older, "wiser", current version of myself sharing some helpful, avuncular insights with my younger self. And yes, that happened. There are obviously so many understandings and life experiences I now have - after forty years working in the field of stress, health & wellbeing - that mean I can put my younger self's experiences into a broader context. What I hadn't expected was how my younger self had some deeply important things to share with and to remind my older self. This was particularly about the central value of "being" as well as "doing"; of wonder & transcendence as well as efficiency & time pressure; of deeply, ecstatically at times, savouring this precious world as well as rushing through it semi-blindly.
And it put the "puffing up" maintenance of self-worth explanation of being a hippie into a different light too. I think for me, "turning on & tuning in" was a lot more about self-transcendence than about self-esteem. In the late sixties, LSD & mescaline were very much part of the zeitgeist. The Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" , the swirling acid music of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, the summer of love ... they washed through the university like a great river and I leapt right in. Looking back now, I don't want to recommend it or condemn it. It was certainly a very important experience for me. Fascinatingly, after many years of neglect, active research into the potential clinical benefits of hallucinogens is once more an area of significant scientific focus. As this year's Lancet article "Shaping the renaissance of psychedelic research" points out "Psychedelic drugs have a rich and vibrant history as clinical aids for psychiatry. For two decades after the discovery of lysergide (LSD) in the 1940s, psychedelics were extensively studied and clinical progress was good. But research collapsed rapidly in 1966 when LSD was made illegal, and there was a subsequent hiatus of psychedelic research. After 40 years, this pause is now coming to an end, with many new studies and a refreshing approach to the research of psychedelic drugs." Possible clinical applications include use in anxiety disorders, pain, obsessive compulsive disorder, alcohol & opiate addictions, existential crises in terminal illness and resistant posttraumatic stress disorder. As the Lancet article suggests "Doctors in the specialty of psychiatry recognise that research with psychedelic compounds is controversial. These drugs are powerful substances and have a negative image in society. Certain patient groups are appropriately contraindicated from using them clinically, such as people with a personal or family history of psychosis. These drugs do have capacity to cause harm, and many such examples of misuse have occurred when they are used recreationally. However, if careful attention is paid to the mindset of the users and the clinical setting in which psychedelics are prescribed, such harms can be minimised to adequately satisfy a risk:benefit analysis."
Not that I used LSD at university as a clinical intervention, but as the 2011 paper "Voice of the psychonauts: coping, life purpose, and spirituality in psychedelic drug users" highlights "Psychoactive drug use shows great diversity, but due to a disproportionate focus on problematic drug use, predominant nonproblematic drug use remains an understudied phenomenon. Historic and anecdotal evidence shows that natural sources of "psychedelic" drugs (e.g., mescaline and psilocybin) have been used in religious and spiritual settings for centuries, as well as for psychological self-enhancement purposes. Our study assessed a total of 667 psychedelic drug users, other drug users, and drug nonusers ... Results indicate that the use of psychedelic drugs with a purpose to enhance self-knowledge is less associated with problems, and correlates positively with coping and spirituality. Albeit the meaning of "spirituality" may be ambiguous, it seems that a spiritually-inclined attitude in drug use may act as a protective factor against drug-related problems." And another study from last year - "Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences: immediate and persisting dose-related effects" - reported "This dose-effect study extends previous observations showing that psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having persisting positive effects on attitudes, mood, and behaviour ... Psilocybin produced acute perceptual and subjective effects including, at 20 and/or 30 mg/70 kg, extreme anxiety/fear (39% of volunteers) and/or mystical-type experience (72% of volunteers). One month after sessions at the two highest doses, volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal and spiritual significance, and attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes, mood, and behaviour ... At 14 months, ratings were undiminished and were consistent with changes rated by community observers. Both the acute and persisting effects of psilocybin were generally a monotonicall increasing function of dose, with the lowest dose showing significant effects. Conclusions: Under supportive conditions, 20 and 30 mg/70 k psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences having persisting positive effects on attitudes, mood, and behavior. Implications for therapeutic trials are discussed." Other research teams have reported similar findings. There is risk here - although at orders of magnitude less than in the ubiquitous use of alcohol & tobacco. The 2007 Lancet paper "Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse" makes no bones about classifying both alcohol & tobacco as significantly more damaging than LSD for physical harm, addictive potential and societal cost.
Not that all this was going through my mind back in the late sixties & early seventies when I took a series of a dozen or so acid trips. Most of the trips were gone into carefully, almost religiously. I remember thinking at the time that it felt a bit sacrilegious that people were selling LSD as a drug for profit. Mostly I would just spend the time in one of the beautiful college gardens, quietly in ecstasy for hours on end watching the dance of sunlight on a tree trunk, the movement of a stream, the flight of birds. Dissolving. Yes drug-induced but, for me, certainly some of the deepest spiritual, self-transcendent experiences of my life. I might well not be a doctor now if I hadn't gone through those experiences. I think I would be a different person without them. I don't want to overplay it, but I don't want to underplay it either. And as for self-esteem, I still remember walking high on acid into one of the college communal shower areas. I was in a place of deep wonder, of awe at the extraordinariness of our amazing world. In William Blake's words "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." And I saw myself in the mirror. Another fragment of this stunning, immense, beyond-all-description universe. No better than anybody else, no worse than anybody else ... actually these terms, this way of looking at personal value seemed ridiculous, profoundly stupid. As I wrote during one of these experiences "Everything is and almost bursts with being so". And it tied in with a dream I had at this time (I already described another dream in the post "Going back for a university reunion: emotional intelligence, group work & learning to relate more deeply") - I dreamt that I could see God. "He" was a presence way up above the earth, looking down, poised to "bless" any human being he became aware of. Unfortunately he couldn't distinguish one human from another when they were marching around in their lives psychologically & spiritually asleep. The individuals operating on automatic pilot like this weren't visible to him. They just merged into each other like cogs in a big machine. However if anyone "woke up", became aware/mindful, then for those moments they became visible to him and - like a lightening strike - he sent down his love, energy & blessings. After a while the acid trips began to feel to me like being given a temporary leg up so for a few hours I could see over a wall into some kind of magic garden. I felt it was time to go look for a ladder and so I took up the practice of yoga & meditation. I changed subject too from philosophy to medicine. Life speeded up and gradually I see now that so much of that wonder, that waking to be "blessed", so much of that has ebbed away in the course of what has in many other ways been a life that I have felt immensely grateful for. And in the acted out dialogue between my younger and my current self, that's what emerged. A reminder of what I had forgotten. In the words of Mary Oliver's beautiful poem "The summer day" :
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean -
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down -
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
And see the next post in this series - "Going back for a university reunion: I couldn't have imagined the script if I'd tried" - for how the "reunion dinner" actually worked out.