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My Adventures in Psychedelia

United Archives/Carl Simon/Bridgeman Images
Carl Simon: Living in the sea, twentieth century

It all began with a book review. Last year, I read an article by David Aaronovitch in The Times of London about Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. The book concerns a resurgence of interest in psychedelic drugs, which were widely banned after Timothy Leary’s antics with LSD, starting in the late 1960s, in which he encouraged American youth to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” In recent years, though, scientists have started to test therapeutic uses of psychedelics for an extraordinary range of ailments, including depression, addiction, and end-of-life angst.

Aaronovitch mentioned in passing that he had been intrigued enough to book a “psychedelic retreat” in the Netherlands run by the British Psychedelic Society, though, in the event, his wife put her foot down and he canceled. To try psychedelics was something I’d secretly hankered after doing ever since I was a teenager, but I was always too cautious and risk-averse. As I got older, the moment seemed to pass. Today I am a middle-aged journalist working in London, the finance editor of The Economist, a wife, mother, and, to all appearances, a person totally devoid of countercultural tendencies.

And yet… on impulse, I arranged to go. Only after I booked did I tell my husband. He was bemused, but said it was fine by him, as long as I didn’t decide while I was under the influence that I didn’t love him anymore. My eighteen-year-old son thought the whole thing was hilarious (it turns out that your mother tripping is a good way to make drugs seem less cool).  

*

One day, after closing that week’s finance and economics section of The Economist, I boarded a Eurostar train to Amsterdam. The next day, I met my fellow travelers—ten of them in all, from various parts of Europe and the United States—in a headshop in Amsterdam. Per the instructions we’d received, we each bought two one-ounce bags of “High Hawaiian” truffles—squishy, light brown fungi in a vacuum pack—at a discounted price of 40 euros, and headed off for four days in a converted barn in the countryside.

I had a foreboding that, besides whatever psychedelic experience I might have, there would also be a lot of chanting and holding strangers’ hands. I’m an atheist and devout skeptic: I don’t believe in chi or acupuncture, and have no time for crystals and chimes. But, mindful that it’s arrogant to remain aloof in such circumstances, I decided I would throw myself into whatever was asked of me.

And so, I not only did yoga and meditation, but also engaged in lengthy periods of shaking my whole body with my eyes closed and “vocal toning”—letting a sound, any sound, escape on every out-breath. I looked into the eyes of someone I had just met and asked, again and again, as instructed: “What does freedom mean to you?” I joined “sharing circles.” All this was intended to prepare us for the trip. The facilitators talked of the importance of your “set” (or state of mind) and of feeling safe and comfortable in your “setting” (where you are and who you’re with).

One of my fellow trippers had taken part in a psilocybin trial at King’s College London. He and three others received at random either a placebo or a low, normal, or high dose of the drug in pill form. It was obvious, he said, that he was the only one given the placebo. To make bad trips less likely, the researchers had advised the participants not to resist anything that happened: “If you see a dragon, go toward it.” The misery of sitting, stone sober, in a room with three people who were evidently having a fascinating time was why he had come on this retreat. “They all had dragons,” he told me. “I wanted a dragon, too.”

People who have taken psychedelics commonly rank the experience as among the most profound of their lives. For my part, I wasn’t searching for myself, or God, or transcendence; nor, with a happy, fulfilling life, was I looking for relief from depression or grief. But I was struck by something Pollan discusses in his book: studies in which therapists used trips to treat addiction.

I’ve never smoked and have no dramatic vices, but the habits of drinking coffee through the morning and a glass of wine or two most evenings had crept up on me in recent years. Neither seemed serious but both had come to feel like necessities—part of a larger pattern of a rushed, undeliberative life with too much done out of compulsion, rather than desire or pleasure. It is the middle-aged rather than the young who could most benefit from an “experience of the numinous,” said Carl Jung, quoted by Pollan.

*

On the big day, we gathered in the main room, each of us with a mattress and eye-mask, after a ritual blessing with burning sage and many choruses of a song called “Tall Trees.” The facilitators put on a playlist of music created for the therapeutic use of psilocybin, involving harps and pan pipes and choral singing. We each had our truffles, mashed in a cup, and the facilitators poured in ginger tea, which was to help with mild nausea that can occur with the drug. There was a second infusion, and, if we wanted it, a third. I asked for a third cup, but never drank it. Within a few minutes, my field of vision was rimmed with glittering fractals. I lay down and closed my eyes—and was off, not to return for several hours.

After some immeasurable time the nausea fades, and so does the view. Now all I see are disjointed snippets—seahorse fossils in blue, green, and sand; splinters of bone… and then I experience what has been dubbed “ego dissolution”: I lose all sense of an “I.” Time stops. The notes of the music playing cease to follow one another in sequence: they become solid objects, pillars, and as they fracture I disappear into a crack between two. Everything fades to a fuzzy black and I dissolve into nothingness.

This comes nowhere close to capturing the experience. Indeed, it is perhaps as tiresome to read as most accounts of tripping, like hearing about someone else’s dream. But that experience of ceasing to be still feels, profound—not because I really think that when I die I will vanish into a crack between two solidified notes (though yes, please, if that is an option), but because it concretized something that had previously been merely a thought-experiment: the idea of not-being, of the final dissolution of death—something that, as an atheist parent, I’ve had to talk about to my children. I had experienced ending. And what I said was true: there was no me to mind, so I did not mind at all.

*

After an immeasurable period of time, I became aware again that I existed. Finally, I was able to sit up and open my eyes. The two women facilitators—both very lovely in reality—had been transformed into goddesses: Athena and Aphrodite, perhaps. I felt abashed even to look at them. The pleasant converted barn had become Valhalla, its wooden beams golden, the candles porcelain sculptures lit from within. One of the goddesses offered me a glass of water and I became entranced by its substance, depth, and clarity, marvelling that anything could be so beautiful.

I put my headphones on and listened to my favorite piece of music, Musique à Grande Vitesse, by Michael Nyman. I heard its complex, interwoven lines as I had never heard them before, as somehow both separate and simultaneous. Finally, as my trip neared its end, something moved me to do the sort of tedious interpretative dance that I can’t bear to watch. Worse, I performed this masterpiece not standing but lying and writhing on my mattress.

When we all compared notes the next day, I found that my experiences had been atypical. One man had shaved himself—the best shave ever, apparently, each clipped bristle a tiny diamond; another had talked to trees; others found themselves at one with Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha. I was envious of the person who had gone outside and dived into a flower’s stamen, traveling first to a cellular and then to an atomic level, before zooming back out to a bird’s eye view of the entire country, which he saw laid out as a garden.

Some of my fellow trippers spoke of feeling an intense connection to all living things, an utter love for all beings, even. But I had found myself alone in the universe. The previous evening I had surprised myself by telling another participant that I found my days surrounded by people very draining. Anyone who knows me would describe me as sociable, but I now saw, very clearly, that I needed to be more self-contained. That evening I wrote: “Habits. You don’t have to. Solitude.”

*

Even after returning home, I still felt spaced out, blissed out. I didn’t see God, but for months afterwards I could recall a fading shadow of the beauty I had experienced by gazing at the glass of water or lit candle, or by listening to the Nyman piece. I told my husband about it—he feels no desire to trip himself (though he wishes he had been there to see the interpretive dance). I made small, life-enhancing changes, such as buying noise-cancelling headphones so I can listen to music properly and feel alone on my commute. To my delight, my awareness of music is still heightened. It was months before I drank either coffee or alcohol again; and I still drink much less of either than before.

Above all, I have a pleasant feeling of distance from everyday annoyances. I feel less permeable. I had got to observe myself with detachment in a way, I felt, that might otherwise have taken years of psychotherapy to achieve.

Researchers seeking to use psychedelics for therapeutic purposes talk about the verisimilitude and intensity of the experience. They think the effect is caused by a temporary shutdown of the “default mode network”—the parts of the brain that allow us to ruminate, to remember the past, and to imagine the future. At the same time, new neural connections are forged, which may explain the sense of heightened awareness, the feelings of oneness and the synaesthesia that some experience (the mixing up of senses, in which a sound may be “seen” or a sight provoke the sensation of touch). This may explain why a single psychedelic trip can sometimes alleviate even severe, refractory depression. Depressed people commonly say that they are unable to wrench their attention away from repetitive, miserable thoughts, and that they no longer feel pleasure. A trip may permit a re-set, breaking painful mental habits and giving sufferers an opportunity to see beauty again, to experience joy.

I plan to take psychedelics again. Next time, I’d like to feel trees growing or to turn the world into a garden. I’d like to trip during the summer so that, instead of seeing a barn conversion remodelled as Valhalla, I might watch a plant grow into Yggdrasil, the mighty tree of Norse mythology. I’d like to contemplate the beauty of an iris or a passion flower, instead of a glass from Ikea. Perhaps rather than performing my own absurd gyrations on a mattress, I might watch a video of a great ballerina dancing.

“It is possible to feel differently about things,” I wrote to myself the day I came back from my trip. “You don’t have to be who you’ve always been. More things are choices than you imagined. Ordinary things are very beautiful if you’ve the eyes to see.”