Reality, Mysticism and Psychedelia

The first time I ever “tripped” I was sitting in a university classroom. I went on a mystical journey to a time before time, where the totality of what would have been existence represented itself to me as a tableau my mind could comprehend: a committee meeting to choose the laws of physics where god was the record of the committee’s discussion. Now I say all this because I know one particular thing to be true about the events of that afternoon in my Gnosticism class: I was not on hallucinogens. Since that time I have eaten hallucinogenic substances* [on purpose], but no, on that day – a regular-ass Thursday afternoon in 2002 – I was only myself, whatever the hell that is.

There was nothing frightening about this experience at the time. Rest assured, it is not scary to become ego-lessly unified with all of creation. If this is what death is like, or the afterlife, or even the substance just under the thin veneer of reality that permeates us all, then there is nothing to fear. To this day I remain remarkably unafraid of ceasing to exist because every time I’ve done it, it’s been great, or if not great then not ungreat. It didn’t feel like nothing, it felt like everything. Now, existing on the material plane, as it appears convincingly that I do, I sometimes think about this experience and what it means or what it was or what I must be to have had it.

I’ve always liked mysticism. I was in a class about Gnosticism after all. A class where, on the first day, the professor came in and scrawled NONSENSE on the board, turned to us all and said, “the things you learn in this class will send you to hell.” Quite a statement to make in the Bible Belt in a classroom 25% comprised of students bound for [Baptist] seminary. Probably this is the sort of “leftist brainwashing” that conservative parents of the world want to protect their children from when they challenge library books and harp about CRT at school board meetings, but in truth my liberal arts education made it possible for me to understand the rudiments of religiosity. Those atheist, liberal elites taught me what it felt like to have ecstatic, mystical experiences, to unify with the divine, to be beyond reason. [So, like, make liberal arts education free for everyone.] It is not that I believe in something specific that I cannot see, it is that I believe that there is so much more that I cannot see than what I can.

Mysticism is, for me and I think many mystics, a journey through a realm with no ego that is only made of possibility and intuition. Though it may seem contrary to the above, I am a very rational person. I am fully prepared to concede that such experiences are just misfiring neurons in my brain, my consciousness itself a series of rippling, epiphenomenal electrical storms in my gray matter, that all of existence is purely materialistic and nothing is “super”natural at all. I don’t see the point in a distinction between physical and spiritual, because if particle physics has taught us anything it is that we have no idea what “is” even is. I am ok with this, my anxieties are calmed by considering that I do not really know anything. Thank god, I might not even be an “I” to “be.” 

Breathe out. Breathe in.

A couple of years ago Michael Pollan wrote a book called [variously] How to Change Your Mind: what the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, depression, and transcendence. I read it, because I read lots of books and as a well-meaning thinking person I am at risk of losing my membership if I don’t read Michael Pollan’s books, but I think that most people can just skip the book and drop acid instead. Because, if the reception of this book is any indication, most adult humans have never had a full-on mystical, ego-dissolving experience before, which I know must be true because they learned something reading Michael Pollan’s book. Let’s just say it is not that I learned nothing, but I was really surprised to know that most people out walking around on earth think they are, like, real or something and they know things and they’re consequential and they have control or whatever. I sometimes get wrapped up in this idea myself, but then I remember that it isn’t true. To think that millions of humans out there don’t have a safe place of complete everythingness to go to at a moment’s notice, worries me for you. 

God, you must all be so afraid! How do you soothe yourselves? Oh yeah… 

So, sometimes cause and effect are so obvious that one forgets about them. And maybe this is a correlation not causation sort of situation, but our world really does seem to be suffering from reality poisoning. You can read the things I write, I am concerned about the climate crisis, I am a thoughtful and slightly anxious parent, I worry about meaning and how to be a good person, I am engaged in my community and with the travails of the wider world, but I know that we are – all of us – just a tiny spec on a tiny spec in a tiny spec and simultaneously the integrated whole of all there ever was/will be. It is hard to be a person and hold all that. I agree it might be “easier” to forget it as much as possible, but I find it more enjoyable/grounding to remember it just enough of the time.

The things that mystical thinking are bad at are well known. It is very hard to maintain an infrastructure that supports the functioning of physical bodies if you’re out in hippy-dippy land all the time. Who will pay the electric bill and who will sign the report cards and who will feed the dog? But the things that rational thinking are bad at we tend to ignore. Over-reliance on rationalism and objectivity blunts our experience of being ephemeral. It makes everything feel so heavy and consequential and inevitable. If you live in very-serious-adult land all the time you can’t really be creative enough to imagine a world that is different than the one you’re already in. You mistake what is real for what is possible. You sound like a mid-century breadwinner telling his teenaged son to “get a haircut” and “live in the real work,” or Senator Diane Feinstein telling a bunch of climate kids that climate change isn’t going to be “turned around in 10 years”  and she has 30 years of experience so she knows.

Ouch.

I’m not advocating escapism, just a return to a larger, wider reality. Like, Jesus Christ, why is it exactly that we have used all our wealth and prosperity and technology and freedom to make ourselves feel shittier about being alive? Even though I know I would not get away with it, sometimes I want to just put psilocybin in Congress’s water supply**. Just to microdose them all for the good of the country, the world really. Everyone assembled right now at COP26 just needs some mescaline in their haggis. The CEOs and the billionaires and even the middle managers and clerks at the DMV could use some LSD. And every member of the media gets ayahuasca, please, travel to the logical end of the American Experiment and see what you have wrought. And when it all wears off, let’s just see how they all do forgetting that they glimpsed behind the curtain. That stuff sticks with you.

The longer I am alive the more I think that my genius [if we get to go around talking about ourselves as anything so grand] is in living in the space between the ecstatic and the mundane. It’s taken me a very long time to understand that this is not the typical locus of most humans. I remember being about 14, having recently read Descartes for the first time [who has a lot to answer for], standing outside my biology classroom, and turning to a girl I had a crush on and saying, “hey, do you ever think about whether or not we’re all just hallucinations in the mind of crazy person.” Pro tip: this is a terrible pick-up line in almost all contexts [pity me]. She was not only not instantly enamored like in the movies, she was horrified, called me a weirdo freak and then added that I was going to hell, obviously, for good measure. Sigh. I have seen her, her husband and her little girls on social media [not like a creeper]. She is a nice, good person who goes to church and votes in local elections and I suspect that she needs to drink some mushroom tea. You know that is what Jesus was doing in the desert.

During my fantastic, publicly subsidized liberal arts education, I learned that mystics have had a difficult time being embraced by mainstream religious traditions, but that their direct communication with the divine is nonetheless seductive to the masses. One of my favorite stories of early Christianity involves what happened at the end of the Diocletian Persecution [roughly 311 CE]. The tldr; on this Era of Martrys is basically that for a few decades the Roman Empire wasn’t sure if it wanted to kill all the Christians or not, so they had this sort of revolving incarceration program for martyrs. An emperor would come along and be like, “we tolerate them now,” followed by one that was like, “nah, crucify’em all.” Needless to say, when this all ended because of the edict of toleration, there were a not insignificant number of Christians who had professed their faith and were willing to die for it [everyone else was trying to keep their head down preserving the orthodoxy] who were then pardoned and out running an ecstatic muck through the early church. Can you imagine? Pope Damascus having to be all like, “well, they are nuts, obviously but Tertullian said, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’, so I guess we have to keep them around.” This continues to delight me. I would have wanted to sit with the martyrs and be like, “tell me about your calling from Christ.”

It is destabilizing to institutions to have to entertain the notions of mystics, I get it. But all stability is an illusion anyway. Because of my specific neurotype, I have a very hard time understanding the assumptions that other people take for granted. My favorite part of parenting has thus far been the “but why?” phase. I hear it is not beloved. I did once, after a 5 or so hour “but why?” marathon with my oldest kid, exclaim in the bread aisle of the grocery store, “nobody knows? Isn’t that glorious?!?!” Pro-tip: if you do not like the “but why?” phase the concern on your toddler’s face that you have finally cracked when you answer this way is priceless, to say nothing of how everyone suddenly gives you lots of space. Just lean into that slightly imbalanced mom of toddlers trope, it’s a great way to be disqualified from normal adult responsibilities [most of which are dumb]. Also, young children are amazing and [if given the privilege of really spending time with them that would be afforded by proper parental leave and flexible work schedules] one has a second opportunity to eschew the strictures of polite nonsense society can’t remember why it made up.

I understand that I am a little crazy, but I prefer to think of myself as stark raving sane. There are a lot of mystical traditions and phenomena that I don’t not believe in. Firewalking, reincarnation, whirling dervishes, snake handling, astrology, etc. They do not seem any crazier to me than the stock market, the Electoral College, machine learning, meritocracy, insurance, or BitCoin. Those things are just more ubiquitously accepted as legitimate. This doesn’t mean I don’t have homeowners insurance or that I think money is just little plastic cards with micro-chips, it’s more that I am making Pascal’s Wager about the foundational beliefs of modernity. It’s a constant negotiation. In many ways an unyielding belief in BitCoin stands to be more dangerous for more people than believing in astrology, anyway.

I do not know, ultimately, what is real. Having had several credible experiences of communion with the numinous unknown, at least no less credible than my experience of sitting at my desk tapping letters into the virtual expanse of the internet, it seems unwise to determine that those experiences are junk data but this one is not. Sure, it’s doesn’t make sense, but I have yet to see the overwhelming benefit of going around making all this sense. What are we making it for, does it really improve anything?

Sometimes I wish we could go back to a time when we did not have more than a millennium’s worth of cultural infrastructure to reinforce our collective delusions. We used to know that we didn’t know anything and now it seems like the only way to get that back is to put peyote in the ivermectin.

Image of two wrists with tattoos in Greek script, the left says "logos" and the right says "mythos."
I got these tattoos about 6 years ago to remind me of the need to balance rational thinking [logos – on the right wrist] with more mystical thinking [mythos – on the left]. I’ve been told they are oriented the “wrong” way, but that’s incorrect because this is how I read. Also my Greek is not good, so apologies if yours is and I look dumb. We’re all doing the best we can.

*Full disclosure: I haven’t done anything stronger than an ibuprofen without a prescription in 13 years, it’s not really my vibe anymore.

**Please Note: I would never actually drug anyone without their consent. That’s not a great idea. Also, you should never, ever trip without preparing yourself for it, do some research. Michael Pollan’s book is actually a good place to start [I did give it 4 stars].  Hallucinogens are also not for children or people who are being custodial of children. Drugs are for adults [they’re the ones who need them]. Understand that I am not really advocating that everyone needs to be high to make their lives better, but am not not advocating it either.

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