Mushroom Myth-conceptions, Part 2

That some hallucinogen experiences are trivial does not mean that none is profound.

Earlier, I posted some of the key findings of the Johns Hopkins psilocybin experiments and a condensation of the concerns and criticisms the research has drawn. I promised responses to some of those concerns; this is the first in that series.

Concern/criticism:  “What’s the big deal?  I took mushrooms, and my experience was neither ‘spiritual’ nor life-changing.”

This of course proves that not all hallucinogen experiences are profound, but not that none is.*

Why are some hallucinogen experiences recalled as life-transforming and others as trivial?  Likely because the trivial experiences involved a suboptimal dosage, ill-focused intentions, a suboptimal setting, or the wrong person. Or because even when all those things are right, any given experience may not be profound. But the research shows that well-screened and well-prepared people given a sufficient dose under good circumstances have a two-thirds or better chance of a profound experience, and a very small risk of real harm.

In the first Johns Hopkins psilocybin experiment, the most remembered and most appreciated psilocybin experiences tended to be those that reached mystical-type consciousness.  Shifting the question, what are the factors that help a psilocybin session to reach mystical states?

Dosage. Enough – neither too little nor too much.  That’s usually a pretty substantial amount, more than typically used recreationally, though what’s needed to bring about mystical experience varies by person and occasion (not to mention chance or grace).

Intention. If you’re expecting just to see pretty colors or to laugh with friends, you may not get much more.  (But caution is advised, as sometimes people get other than what they bargained for.)

Setting. This includes your guide (sitter, officiant, etc. – you have one, right?), the place, the company, etc.  Recall the impact of awe-inspiring architecture, nature, sacred music, poetry, and the like.

Individual. Just as some people are mystically gifted and need no assist, there may be others for whom the hallucinogens will never serve as entheogens.  It’s not a path for everyone.  That leaves a middle group, with quite a variety of tastes and mystical sensitivities.

These factors are interdependent.   Intention influences choice of guide, setting, substance, and amount.  A guide ought to have a lot to offer about preparations and establishing a suitable setting.  The dose can be so high as to dissolve duality even when there is no intention for that to happen.  (Warning: higher doses can greatly increase the risk of transient reactions – fear, paranoia, delusions – that could lead to harmful behaviors if unchecked.)  Or, the dose can be so low that, for a given individual, not even alignment of all the other factors would likely yield a mystical experience.

Government surveys show around a million hallucinogen initiations annually in the U.S.  That there does not appear to be a corresponding wave of mystical insight has been attributed (with respect to another classical serotonergic hallucinogen) to low doses:

LSD’s most profound psychic effect, the sense of contacting some profound universal truth, occurs at higher doses.  The dosage common in the early 1960s (when achieving this cosmic consciousness was often a motivation for LSD use) was 250 micrograms; in the 1990s the common dosage is believed to be 50 micrograms.

— Leigh A. Henderson & William J. Glass, LSD: Still With Us After All These Years (1994)

A number of commentators…have recently argued that LSD’s effects are essentially in line with “recreational drug use.”  However, most of these observers became interested in this compound in the 1970’s, when the usual dosage had dropped to 50 to 100 mcg., far below the dosages taken in the 1960’s, which frequently exceeded 250 mcg.  Dosage is a primary factor in the emergence of religious impulses.  Lesser amounts generally have lesser effects, although small doses on occasion have induced psychically powerful results.

— Peter Stafford,  Psychedelics Encyclopedia (1992)

To focus on mystical experience is not to discount the potential value of lower-dose, non-mystical hallucinogen experiences.  They can be useful, e.g., in some psychotherapies, to spark professional or artistic creativity, to enhance appreciation of nature and beauty, or to enhance philosophical or spiritual contemplation. But the most profound and remembered experiences seem to come with suitable preparation, suitable guidance, and adequate amounts of the entheogen.

*That paraphrases Huston Smith’s response in 1964 to another religion scholar, R.C. Zaehner, who had described his own mescaline experience as “utterly trivial.” For further reading, see Smith’s Do Drugs Have Religious Import?

5 thoughts on “Mushroom Myth-conceptions, Part 2”

  1. No one was more articulate than the late Terence McKenna who was one of the only people I ever met who actually could be said to speak prose, fully formed sentences and paragraphs spontaneously uttered. A great example if you have never heard him is at
    http://www.myspace.com/video/vid/27759640

    If you can’t watch videos, the golden part of his take on the purpose of psychedelics is:

    “My notion of what the psychedelic experience is for is that we each must become like fishermen, and go out on to the dark ocean of mind, and let your nets down into that sea. And what you’re after is not some behemoth, that will tear through your nets, follow them and drag you in your little boat, you know, into the abyss, nor are what we’re looking for a bunch of sardines that can slip through your net and disappear. Ideas like, “Have you ever noticed that your little finger exactly fits your nostril”, and stuff like that. What we are looking for are middle size ideas, that are not so small that they are trivial, and not so large that they’re incomprehensible. That middle size ideas that we can wrestle into our boat and take back to the folks on shore, and have fish dinner. And every one of us when we go into the psychedelic state, this is what we should be looking for. It’s not for your elucidation, it’s not part of your self-directed psychotherapy. You are an explorer, and you represent our species, and the greatest good you can do, is to bring back a new idea, because our world is in danger by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness. And so to whatever degree any one of us, can bring back a small piece of the picture and contribute it to the building to the new paradigm, then we participate in the redemption of the human spirit, and that after all it what it’s really all about.”

    Like the idea of Joseph Campbell and the hero’s night journey, in which the traveler brings something back to the community after the shamanic expedition, McKenna had the very strong sense that the purpose of mushrooms etc. was communal, not individual and idiosyncratic.

  2. Carl Sagan, writing as “Mr. X”:

    “There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day. Some of the hardest work I’ve ever done has been to put such insights down on tape or in writing.”

  3. I’m curious about the extent to which this research is specific to hallucinogenic mushrooms as opposed to other kinds of hallucinogens. On the one hand, your discussions seem to be focused singly on mushrooms, which suggests a specificity. But on the other you do use quotes hear about LSD, which suggests a more generalized hypothesis. Is there any reason to suppose that your results would not carry over to (properly dosed, properly set, etc.) ingestions of other hallucinogens?

    Carnap

  4. I think answering this objection is futile. The significance of the psychedelic experience is generated by the immediate visceral impression engendered. So if someone didn’t have a profound experience, telling them they didn’t do it right, is usually seen as a automatic self-defense tactic.

    Carnap, prima facie, the results should carry over to drugs with similar psychopharmacology, so that inducts LSD and mescaline into the scope. I would include some of the 2C-x compounds as well. Psychedelics such as DMT or Ibogaine or Salvia seem to belong to different subfamilies and applicability is nuanced, certainly as far as side-effects go.

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