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How Psychedelics Can Be a Path to Transformation

An exploration of psychedlics' potential to support personal, spiritual, and cultural transformation.

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Some aficionados of the pure psychedelic experience argue that the unmitigated experience itself is sufficient to deliver transformation. And there are others, such as me, who find that the transformative influence of the psychedelic experience makes a quantum leap when integrated with spiritual practice such as Buddhist contemplation or when integrated with liberating psychotherapy. Unsupported psychedelic experience is unpredictably transformative. Integrations from the spirit side with ordinary lived reality are easier if we recognize that psychedelic transformation is but one element in our efforts to free ourselves from the corporate materialist culture. That is not a simple or straightforward task.

The Varieties of Pyschedelic Experience

To convey the varieties of psychedelic experience is to experience the only partially descriptive capacity of words. Without intending to reify, or circumscribe, I will present a taxonomy of experience that reflects my personal history and observations over forty-seven years, since I and a small group of new friends just commencing medical school in New York City dropped acid (LSD). With this I am attempting to convey the psychedelic allure and am using "states" rather than some hierarchical notion based on "levels" -- all such states have value for transformation.

The Mundane State: Conventional allure flows from curiosity, a desire to change oneself, the temptation of forbidden fruit, and emulation of others.

The Personal/Psychotherapeutic State: In 1964, I was a young, awkward, and self-conscious male, repressed and having just finished a psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapeutic experience that had helped me to alleviate some of the pain of my hypercritical feuding parents that I had introjected. I was beginning to find my own voice and guidance. In the flash dance of a few hours, my inner structure rocked and shifted. LSD and I met, and I passed through great fear to feel my self-hate alleviated and my imagination freed to inform a creative new consciousness. Art came alive, as did everyday experience. After I came down from the LSD trip, I was deliberately determined to hold onto that freedom -- a determination informed by a structural psychological awareness that had been obtained in the intensity of my earlier psychotherapy experience. My subsequent introduction to marijuana freed me of physical and sexual awkwardness, turned me onto intimate discourse, facilitated a heightened closeness in my friendships, and furthered my sense of being a creative person. This was not completely linear. There were ups and downs, and the process took place with absorption in the growing Movement, which came with a sense of being in a community of progressive people worldwide. Psychedelic use in that formative period increased my self-confidence and sensuality. It did not prevent me from making all manner of errors in personal and political life, but I was much better at discernment, moving on, kindness, and forgiveness.

Psychedelic use invariably affects the personal/psychological matrix. Starting a journey forces an encounter with fear -- of the unknown, of the lurking dangers believed hidden in one's own mind, of coming back altered. In the encounter the first period is generally absorbed with the personal: relationships, guilt, love, longing, grief, attachments, and self-concepts. This encounter opens the way to examination, release, and change, to reframing and heightened awareness of self and the others. A bad trip -- usually in an uncomfortable setting under stressful circumstances -- can result in fear, paranoia, and a recoil from the opened space that is perceived as threatening. Some folks never use psychedelics again. Occasionally too young people and some others -- I know personally of several twelve- and thirteen-year-olds -- experience damaging mental effects that may last far too long. Set (the mind's orientation) and setting (the circumstances of use) always affect the quality of significant psychedelic experiences. Conscious preparation, good location, and the presence of supportive friends make for better experiences and outcomes.

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