Lessons from two early psychedelic psychonauts are as relevant today as they were in 1977.

In 2020, psychedelics are still illegal to produce, possess, distribute, sell or consume, but therapeutic applications are beginning to receive long overdue support from reputable scientists and clinicians again, with expectation that therapeutic protocols will be developed to help with conditions such as PTSD, severe depression, opiate additions, smoking cessation, and anxiety for the dying. There may even be applications for autism.

But what about those in less extreme circumstances who want to explore psychedelics for their personal spiritual value, or who want to get unstuck from other emotional or habitual ruts? If a legal way or jurisdiction can be found in which to gain access to these drugs, how should an explorer approach them?

Perhaps history holds some clues. Remember that peyote, mescaline, and psilocybin mushrooms had been in use for countless generations. But what made LSD so interesting to Hofmann and other chemists of his time was the extremely small doses that could be administered to bring about similar psychotic effects. Hofmann wondered if there was a hidden chemical basis for naturally occurring psychosis that could be counteracted.

But the genie quickly got out of the bottle. Governments were soon experimenting with mind control, and an entire counter culture was taking it with their middle finger in the air. Everyone was talking about it and writing about it—while straining to find the words for it. Psychedelics were a veritable explosion that could not be controlled, except to outlaw them in 1968.

LSD: A Generation Later

The resulting psychedelic underground had been operating for almost 10 years, when Bruce “Eisner” Erlich organized a conference entitled “LSD: A Generation Later” at UC Santa Cruz in 1977, combined with Albert Hoffmann’s visit. There, many of the most loud-mouthed first generation responsible for starting the war on drugs with Nixon, and many less ostentatious explorers came together to discuss the state of affairs.

Two of the attendees: John C. Lilly, and Richard Alpert, offered clues to approaching psychedelics some 40 years after LSD 25 was first synthesized from the ergot mushroom, that are still relevant more than another 40 years later.

Approach Your Own Trip with Naïveté

John C. Lilly introduced himself and stressed that, being among the first generation of psychonauts, there was very little by way of scientific or cultural information to prepare them for where LSD would take them, or how the drug would impact their lives. They were the most naïve generation, and this, he said, was an advantage that later generations would miss out on.

The less a new explorer’s mind is seeded with pre-programming of earlier trippers, the less their own trips would be contaminated by others’ notions, and the more meaningful the trip would be. He often told anyone who had read his material to do their best to forget it before their own trip. “We’re published”, he said, implying that while the experience itself was alive, once written about, it is long dead.

Lilly’s Lesson: Approach your trip as a truly naïve beginner. Kill any pre-conceptions, and enter into your own trip as a means of gathering data about your own mind and earlier life experiences. It is up to you and you alone to interpret the data from your own trip.

There is Life Beyond Psychedelics

Richard “Dick” Alpert, a.k.a. Ram Dass introduced himself and said that during his first five years included hundreds of LSD trips (then legal), but that tapered off to a trip every year or two afterwards, and by the time of the conference in 1977 said, “I really don’t know that I care whether I ever take it again.”

Alpert honored LSD for it’s ability to break up many of his calcified thought patterns, but after so many trips, he had developed a tolerance for the drug, and he was not learning anything new. More trips just provided more grist for the mill. There was just too much data to know what to do with, and not enough time in one lifetime to process it all.

Having learned what he needed from LSD-produced egoless states, Alpert went on to live an egoless life to the best of his ability. The end-game, according to Alpert, was to become what one is trying to find through psychedelics or other spiritual means.[^fn1]

[^fn1]: Ram Dass dies at 88. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/23/obituaries/baba-ram-dass-richard-alpert-dead.html)

Alpert’s Lesson: Psychedelics are one instrument for achieving a temporary, egoless state. At some point even these powerful instruments run their course. Learn from them and move on.

The trip comes and goes, but preparation and integration make all the difference in the long run.

A life best lived is one that is examined, and improved as it is lived. An examined life includes regular small doses of introspection punctuated with experiences that can shake our world view and view of ourselves to the core. Used judiciously, psychedelics can offer such planned experiences.

Psychedelics are inert, and do not produce experience by themselves. They are not magical on their own, though their affects on a human mind are often reported to be. Psychedelics require a working human brain as a substrate to act on, and they do so by activating serotonin 2A receptors throughout the brain, while they also disrupt the normal function of our default mode network. These brain chemistry shifts underpin the experience that Jimi Hendrix sang about more than 50 years ago. If you are looking to become experienced at least once in your lifetime, this article is about getting the most out of your trip, in the larger context of an examined life.

Disclaimer: This author does not condone the illegal use of any substance. Never take personality altering drugs alone or in a public setting. Never administer drugs to minors, or adults without their consent. People with psychotic tendencies should steer clear of these potentially permanently unhinging substances.

Preparation for the Trip

Personal Preparation

As with any goal, start with the end in mind. There is life after the trip—and that should weigh heavily on your decision. Integration work—is work—taking weeks—and so does preparation. Preparation is what is referred to as “set” in “set and setting”. What you bring to the trip is the fodder for the trip itself.

Understand the Role of Expectancy

There are people who rank their trips among the most important and transformative events in their lives, and others whom the trip does not change in the long run. There are people who report finding god, and others who report finding dead people or aliens. There people who report leaving drugs, alcohol, and nicotine behind, and others that can’t quite quit. There are people who report more or less of PTSD, chronic anxiety or depression in the weeks and months following their trip.

The time to understand and cultivate your expectations is before your trip, because during your trip you will not be in control.

Do your Research

For understanding something of the history of psychedelics and potential of psychedelics from articulate, experienced people, I recommend reading or listening to: Terence McKenna, Michael Pollan, Steven Kotler, Sam Harris, Rachel Harris. For recent, current clinical research read or listen to: Roland Griffiths. For a detailed guide on how to prepare for your trip, read or listen to James Fadiman.

Till the Soil and Plant good Seeds

  • During your trip, you will be too preoccupied to remember what to ask, so weeks in advance, start a journal and plant some seeds in your psyche in the form of important questions to you. For example:
  • If I could understand one thing about myself better, what would that be?
  • If I could understand one thing about my relationships better, what would that be?
  • If there were one relationship that could be redone, which one would that be?
  • If there were one habit to leave behind forever, which would that be?
  • If there are underlying causes for my dissatisfaction in life, what might those be?
  • Is there anything in life that I was uniquely born to do?
  • If there were one ability or talent to develop further, what would that be?
  • What areas of my life need more stability?
  • What areas of my life need more courage or grit?
  • What emotions do I want to feel more or less in life?
  • What is at the root of my best and worst relationships?
  • Which offenses or insults against me could be reframed or dropped?
  • How could my studies or work be more meaningful?
  • Do I need a trip to gather the data to reach my goals?
  • How can I more clearly understand my own and others’ limitations?

Planting these seeds weeks in advance of your trip will prime your subconscious mind to gather the best data during the trip, and organize that data after your trip.

Setting Preparation

The cardinal rule is: if you trip, do it under expert supervision. Never trip alone. The setting can be under clinical or shamanic care—ideally under someone who is experienced, spiritually neutral, and reputable as a sitter or guide. A good sitter knows the stages of the trip, and how to stay out of your head. A good guide should not be under the influence during your trip. When necessary, a sitter can help you find the bathroom, stay hydrated, stay away from traffic and other people, or even cut your trip short with a counteracting drug if it goes too badly.

During the Trip

A purposeful trip is not about escaping everyday reality, it is about gathering psychological data through direct experience to bring back with you on your return to normal life. Resolve to open your mind and let the data flow in unimpeded. Remember: You chose this.

When the drug engages your brain and warps your identify and history, you can’t know specifically how your trip will go. You will no longer be in control. The only way from here is forward. This is where your preparation will come to your aid. Trust your mind to absorb the raw data for later analysis while you go with the flow. To use the analogy of a kayaker in a challenging river, a few mantras you’ve practiced earlier will keep your kayak working with the current during the roughest stretches.

  • Relax.
  • Lean into this.
  • I will get through this.

If during your trip you are confronted with other presences, this is no time to run away or overanalyze the situation. Trust your mind to face these presences, whatever their origin. In the warped space time of your trip, your attitude will be your best tool. Just remember these:

  • I am safe.
  • I come in peace.
  • What do you need from me?
  • What do you have for me?

Post Trip Integration

Integration is an organic and iterative process. It is work you alone can do. It is nonlinear, and unpredictable.It takes time, so be patient!

First rule: don’t rush to quit your job, leave your partner, change your major or career in the first few days. Give yourself weeks or more of reflection for adjustments to your values and the realities of life to settle into one another.

Second Rule: choose carefully whom you share your trip with and pay attention to timing. Sharing the details of your trip with the wrong people, or even the right people at the wrong time can be like throwing pearls before proverbial swine. When you do decide to share, you’ll get further by discussing meaning or learnings with other people than on the specific imagery. Stick to the gist of the learning. Nobody but you can relate directly to the content of your trip.

Ineffable means there are no words, so don’t try too hard to describe or explain. Stick to what you learned.

Double down on your contemplative or meditative practice. Meditation is shown to balance brain chemistry and calm the default mode network, which supports integration, because it reconnects you to your earlier bygone selfless experience.

Keep writing in your journal. Note any new gains and freedoms. Note any losses and what they’ve taught you. Note any new coincidences and synchronicities in your life. Note any changes in your priorities. Note changes in sleep, exercise, sex, diet. Note changes in mood and overall health.

Healthy Examined Life

Remember, we are born, we live, we learn, we love, we die. We only live once, but an examined life is the best life we can make.

There are many alternatives to learning about ourselves than psychedelics, though obviously less potent. Regularly losing ourselves in activities like music, meditation, sports, aerobic exercise, walks in nature, yoga and tai chi, and charitable service are flow state-producing activities. Done regularly, these states can loosen up our rigid, egoistic world view and generate insights. With or without psychedelics, I believe these should be part of a healthy, examined life. The positive effects from these activities have a half-life, but they have a cumulative effect too.

Lose yourself to find yourself.