Writing about psychedelic experience is swinging back into style. The taboo set down in the 70’s is lifting, in large part riding the wave of Michael Pollan’s recent book.
Taboos indicate dust swept under the cultural rug, an artificial cleanliness necessary for maintaining status quos. Lifting them is vital for progress, in any holistic sense of the term.
As Alan Watts notes:
“For there is always something taboo, something repressed, unadmitted, or just glimpsed quickly out of the corner of one’s eye because a direct look is too unsettling.” (The Book)
The taboo on psychedelic experience is derivative of a larger secret — that consciousness is a vast, unexplored labyrinth with rooms whose dimly lit contents may threaten how we organize our lives, our societies, and even our-selves.
Ayahuasca & I
Following suit, the best way I can think to convey my recent experience with ayahuasca, which felt like a taste of what is known more generally by long-term meditators as ‘pure consciousness’, is through a crude metaphor involving unpleasantly tight pants.
Sometimes, when faced with a social function where my presentation is sure to be superficially scrutinized, I’ll put on a particular pair of light khaki corduroy pants. In these I feel presentable. They’re slim, as all the latest H&M models show me is the trend. They are not, however, comfortable.
All day, I wear these constricting pants. Early on, my hips are constantly reminded of the stiff-fabric noose formed around them, scratching and squeezing their surface, skin growing red with agitation.
As the day wears on, however, the sensations become routine, and the anesthetic effect of familiarity kicks in. The bothersome fact of my tight pants slowly recedes from the spotlight of consciousness. They become a mere fact of my existence. Their novelty fades into the past, and my fixation upon their discomfort becomes a backdrop for new waves of novelty brought on by the continuing day.
The ayahuasca entered my system as a glass of champagne might’ve at the social function. But where champagne further numbs me to uncomfortable trousers, the ayahuasca prompted me to — metaphorically — spring from the venue, race home, and rip off my pants.
That deep sigh of relief is precisely how my consciousness felt during the trip’s peak. It carried the same felt-sensation as shedding a forgotten constriction. Like a sponge slowly expanding after long being squeezed. It felt as though I could see my usual mind as pants cast upon the floor.
These first few moments where the contrast was still fresh were exultant; to remember how free untethered legs are. To experience the wonder-full present, unmediated by narratives and anxieties.
The psychedelic taboo encourages us to file these experiences under “weird drug trips”, right next to our bizarre dreams. These files, if ever revisited, are to be treated as vacations: fun while they lasted, nostalgic memories, but bearing no consequence for ‘real life’. “Back to the real world”, we often say.
Why, then, did William James use the term ‘noetic’ to describe these esoteric experiences of consciousness?
“They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.” (Varieties of Religious Experience)
And why do people consistently report psychedelic experiences as among the most meaningful of their lives, even years after? Curious indeed.
Clearly, something more is going on here.
In tune with James, my experience felt noetic; as if this new atmosphere of consciousness was not artificial, but an ever-present fact, as fundamental to consciousness as unseen atoms are to material objects.
There was still an ‘I’, insofar as experience organized itself around a subject, but this subject was entirely reconfigured. The result was what felt like a more inclusive view of things, a vantage point from which my ordinary consciousness truly appeared as a fabricated dressing, layered upon and occluding this raw skin of sentience.
Then, as if by Nature’s decree, my pants reclaimed their position upon my legs, my mind superimposing itself once more upon unconfined consciousness. The trip was ending; the familiar ‘I’ returning.
When I look back upon it now, that hour-or-so of frictionless awareness, radical presence, the existential detective in me returns. Did I find any answers to my recurring questions: Who am I? What is this? What should I do with my life? Does consciousness transcend the body? I did ask myself these questions, but at the time, my interest in them simply dissolved. None of that mattered. These were questions of my old mind; my interest in them was left in the pockets of my discarded pants.
If this makes the experience sound impotent, then the point was missed. It’s one thing to know, or read that the usual consciousness in which we exist is but one locus of a center-less fabric. It’s entirely different to feel this is so. These experiences progressively unbolt the furnishings of my habitual mental environment — the inner room in which ‘I’ exist. The room grows loose, fluid, and evermore porous to its larger context.
Psychedelics, meditation, neuroplasticity, these are but a few redecorative tools in philosophy’s arsenal. They enable us, among other things, to buy new pants (though the role of today’s capitalism in making such purchases, where the economy furnishes our psyches with its products, even metaphysics, remains a salient topic for another time).