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Recent psychedelic research: lessons from current personal experience - description


                  God-speed ... To heart-opened light-burst ... Love-drenched ... Out-breath, walls melt                                       To the tender darkness ... Mithril to wings.    Willie Grieve (a friend sending good wishes for the journey).

                                   Surrendering ... to liquid night ... Welcoming dissolution                                                                                   A path of music ... To love's lessons ... In a sky of being.      My reply.

I've written a lot about psychedelics on this website over the last three or four months, including this sequence of three posts on personal experience.  The first of this sequence is "Recent psychedelic research: lessons from current personal experience - introduction".  Then there's this post on "description", and finally a third on "Lessons from current personal experience - suggestions".  Gosh ... I've been skirting round writing this description-of-the-experience blog post.  I scored identical, high 83% scores on the widely used Mystical experience questionnaire (MEQ30) for each of the two psychedelic trips I took a few days ago.  One of the characteristics of these states is 'ineffability', which an online dictionary tells me means "incapable of being expressed or described in words; inexpressible: ineffable joy. not to be spoken because of its sacredness; unutterable: the ineffable name of the deity."  And this feels right ... both that descriptions tend to crashingly fail to honour the power of these experiences and that also in some ways I feel uncomfortable talking about things that have such a deeply sacred quality.  I'm not a religious person, in that I don't belong to any formal faith.  I don't even believe in a God.  However I do see myself as deeply spiritual and I have extensive experience of many spiritual paths (so, for example, I have been meditating & practising yoga for nearly fifty years ... and have taught both).  Despite this and, earlier in my life, a whole series of meditation retreats and stays in ashrams & monasteries ... the two internal 'voyages' I took last week felt the most profound spiritual experiences of my life.  As I've said already, I use the words 'most profound' rather than 'most important' quite deliberately as how 'important' the experiences are won't become evident until I see how much they have affected my life in the weeks, months & years ahead.  Despite my caution about trying to talk about what happened ... not to say a bit about it would leave these blog posts feeling like an extensive description of the scientific study & practical care of say elephants without ever getting round to actually describing an elephant to you.

In trying to 'integrate' what happened, I've been using a number of methods - see the Lessons from current personal experience - suggestions" post for more on integration, dose, guides, and so on.  One integration 'tool' I've used has been to draw each of the trips.  Despite not being an artist at all, these drawings illustrate key points pretty well.  Here's the drawing for the first trip:

OK, I know this picture is kind of confusing, but it does illustrate the territory I explored.  I'd gone into the trip wanting to open more to love, wonder & gratitude ... and I received this in great bouquets.  If I was to try to do the experience justice, I would write for pages and this isn't what I want to do here.  I would however like to give some flavour of it ... and it's important, I feel, for the 'flavour' to give a sense of the deep emotional colouring of trip experiences.  Without this emotional colour, talking about a trip is a bit like trying to tell you about the taste of wine by waving an empy glass bottle in front of you.  To try to give this flavour, I'll share something I found difficult and something that I'm deeply grateful for about each of the two trips.

So ... a difficulty of the first trip.  Mm ... this is only partly relevant to trip flavour, but it was the biggest difficulty I found myself facing.  At least for our first two meetings, I didn't feel particularly in tune with my two trip-sitters.  This was hard ... a bit like preparing for a space flight with the astronaut feeling that they weren't really on the same page as their ground control team.  We had exchanged emails and had a Skype call between Scotland & the Netherlands beforehand.  I wasn't particularly comfortable with how this had gone, but decided to go ahead with the trip anyway.  There's a basic therapy principle that the therapeutic alliance is central to the effectiveness of therapy.  I try to give my clients the Session rating scale towards the end of each meeting (at least in our early sessions).  This scores feeling understood/respected, agreement on goals, agreement on methods, and overall session on 0-10 scales.  For helpful therapy, one would hope for all four scale scores to be at least up at 8, and preferably at 9 or 10.  I was nowhere near that.  Ouch.  My sense was that they saw my interest in more transpersonal issues like love, wonder & gratitude as avoidance of nitty-gritty psychological problems ... and that I was an intellectual, caught in my head, who was in denial about my probable gut-level emotional difficulties.  This was understandable ... they didn't know me.  I voiced my concerns about this mismatch, but I didn't feel we really connected well until after the first trip ... not at all ideal.  And my feelings around this?  Unease.  A background sense that the deeper water of the trip itself might be safer than the shallows where I would potentially be more in dialogue with my guides.  Knowing that I hadn't visited this psychedelic space since student LSD experiences nearly fifty years earlier, I was concerned about my 'rustiness' ... like facing a difficult mountain walk feeling I needed to be fairly self-reliant but I hadn't been in the hills for a long time.  A paradox here is that if I had been plagued by psychological difficulties, research strongly suggests that a deep 'mystical experience' would ... far from being an avoidance of the problems ... actually be one of the best predictors of good outcome. 

And something I'm deeply grateful for?  That I went ahead with the trip ... swam & was carried by the current deep out into the ocean ... explored, learned about love in ways that felt heart-meltingly helpful.  Images & feelings imprinted in my body.  I think the small-mind of our every day ego is a great evolutionary development that helps us navigate & survive in this complex world.  But like the tree of knowledge's apple in the bible Genesis story, I think this ability to plan, remember, worry, regret, get lost in past & future ... also in a sense throws us out of the garden of Eden.  During the trip, the ego's resting default mode network in the brain is disrupted.  We can open into big-mind/big-self.  This shift from what could be thought of as small-self to big-self could be terrifying ... a kind of ego death ... but it can also be deeply wonderful, at times dissolving into bliss, into infinite gratitude, into a kind of ecstasy.  And the big-self wasn't particularly interested in coming back into this world ... it yearned much more to move up & away into some kind of no-self, to fully dissolve into the universe.  Heart opened like a flower.  A sense of love flowing through us like a great current ... and our choice to surrender & open & channel this as best we can ... or not.  Huge.  Extraordinary.  Unforgettable.  Like floating out in the depths of space surrounded by infinite stars.  And coming back, like a humble pilgrim returning from a mountain peak.  Quiet, blessed, reflective, at peace.

And the second trip?  Why even take a second trip, as I did, just three days after the first?  Well partly it was because it was a service, an opportunity, that my sitters offered.  Partly because I'm a busy health professional and I wanted to learn as much as possible in my time out in the Netherlands.  And partly it was because I'd initially thought I'd take a moderate dose trip first and then, all being well, take a higher dose second.  In the end, it didn't work out this way.  With each of the two trips, I took the same initial 22gm dose of psilocybin truffle, followed by a further 22gm an hour or so later.  With the particular type of truffle that my trip-sitters had recommended, packet size is an unusual 22gm (most truffles are sold in 15gm packages).  As you can see from this smartshop advice on different truffle doses, 44gm is a large intake that both increases the chances of a mystical/peak experience and of a challenging 'bad trip' ... the kind of dose that is usually best not to take without a good deal of prior psychedelic experience.  There is considerably more about doses in the next post of this sequence.  With the first trip I simply ate the 44gm of truffle.  This contains a good deal of psilocybin, but also plenty of chitin - "a fibrous substance consisting of polysaccharides, which is the major constituent in the exoskeleton of arthropods and the cell walls of fungi".  This was fine during the trip, but in the hours afterwards I had fairly spectacular diarrhoea.  When it came to taking the next dose three days later, I thought it would be very interesting to try taking it as a tea instead.  This is a widely used method (here are three recipes) and, for me, it turned out to be much more tolerable for my gut.  In fact from here on in, I would routinely prefer to take truffles as tea rather than eating them. 

The difficulty was in gauging dose.  This was my first attempt at making truffle tea.  Next time, I would cut the truffles even smaller.  While steeping them in hot water for 15-20 minutes, I wouldn't just stir them occasionally ... but would also see if I could squeeze them out a bit to encourage as much psilocybin as possible into the tea water.  Additionally, taking psilocybin at three day intervals ... especially when the first dose is pretty high ... leads to tachyphylaxis, a diminished response to subsequent doses.  Here's a 2018 paper on the metabolism of psilocybin in the body.  In it, the authors comment " ... the rapid desensitization to a drug or toxin resulting in diminished physiologic effect, is a phenomenon seen with most hallucinogens. Tolerance begins to develop after the administration of a single dose. The mechanism behind this rapid desensitization is the physiologic response to 5-HT2A receptor overstimulation by quickly downregulating receptor sites.  In general, it is thought that these receptor sites return to fifty percent of their baseline within three to seven days of the initial dose and return to baseline within one to four weeks, depending on dose and duration of repeated use."  So that was the difficulty with the second trip ... that although the tea was made from 44gm of truffles, with my beginner's attempt at brewing, it maybe didn't contain quite as much psilocybin as simply eating them ... and probably even more importantly, my brain 5-HT2A receptors were likely to be somewhat desensitized.  My subjective estimation was that I'd lost about 20-25% of the 'rocket boost'.

However, dose is certainly not the only important factor in determining trip quality ... as is highlighted by early results from the rather wonderful Global Psychedelic Survey.  I now felt more in tune with my trip-sitter (I only had one sitter rather than two for this second experience) and more familiar again with the psychedelic state.  If the first trip had a flavour of Buddhism & Yoga, this second one was shot through with Sufism & Sacred Dance.  Last year's paper on "Cultural neurophenomenology of psychedelic thoughtis interesting in this area.  About a couple of hours into it, when small-self was well dissolved, I sat up cross-legged and started to dance with the upper half of my body.  Remember that most current psychedelic interventions involve encouragement to go inwards, using an eye mask and a playlist listened to through headphones.  For both trips I used music put together by the research team at John Hopkins, probably the most experienced psychedelic research group in the world.  Bliss.  For maybe three hours with just an occasional rest, I danced.  It's been said "Dancing dissolves the ego, and the ego is the only thing that separates us from God".  I felt I was in a great auditorium ... those who have died (many of whom I recognised), those who are to come, devils & angels too, banked up in the seating:

Moving on the dance floor of life just for our short time on earth.  Praise and celebration.  Prayer is about praise & gratitude as much as about intercession & compassion.  Rabindranath Tagore said "God respects me when I work.  He loves me when I sing".  Although, in some ways, I knew better ... I still partly went into this second trip expecting it would be an extension of the first.  Foolishness!  A voice in my head said "The God of love is also the God of beauty" and I had this sense of one of my younger granddaughters becoming increasingly frustrated with me because ... when I was with her ... I kept referring back to time with her older sister.  "I'm here ... let's not talk about my sister just now" was the impatient & wise message.  And when I let go of the first trip, the second one flowered into something just as extraordinary.  Very different, but again there seemed an underlying dissolution of small self, and a centering in a much more porous, less separated from the universe big self.  Past & future seemed present now.  Surrendering into the dance ... not separate ... and for a moment, as the soundtrack dipped into Qawwali singing of love, devotion, and divine longing, my heart flew out of my chest soaring up with the singing, as my body disintegrated into a cloud of petals.  And tears come writing this.  Blessed.

Writing this reminds me of an interview with a woman facing terminal illness in one of the John Hopkins psychedelic studies.  She explained that she was an atheist, but then described her trip in deeply religious terms.  When asked if she was now no longer an atheist, but had become a believer ... she said something like "No, not at all ... but the best language we have for describing these experiences seems to be religious".  I agree.  I absolutely think that mystical literature & poetry is shot through with descriptions of landscapes that many find themselves in when taking higher doses of psychedelics, especially if we can surrender psychologically to the experience.  I had prepared for this journey to the Netherlands using ideas from the John Hopkins study on psychedelics & meditation ... and for a while when younger I studied with Sufis and I'm familiar with ecstatic dance.  The waves of the sea come up and carry us if we float rather than struggle.  And whether we're facing suffering ... or, at a particular point in life, we're fortunate to be feeling fine ... either way, these experiences can be deeply helpful for us.  They can loosen the tight hold of the small self, 9-to-5 ego structure, which can be an efficient servant but a poor master of our lives.  "Only connect". 

For the next post in this 'trilogy', see "Recent psychedelic research: lessons from current personal experience - suggestions".


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