Growing up, I thought LSD was some pill that produced kaleidoscope-like visuals for smelly stoners in the 60s. Throughout school we we’re told that drugs are bad, and I took their word for it.
Then I read Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris.
In the book, neuroscientist and moral philosopher, Sam Harris attempts to answer the following question:
“Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain? Is there a happiness that does not depend upon having one’s favorite foods available, or friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or good books to read, or something to look forward to on the weekend? Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires are gratified, in spite of life’s difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?”
I would guess that this is a question that we all struggle with in our own way.
Most of us conclude that there isn’t anything in this life outside of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain at all costs — or at least we live our lives as such.
But I would guess that somewhere within us is a nagging feeling that there must be more. There must be something beyond the ultimately unsatisfying nature of momentary pleasure.
Some find comfort in religion as a means of transcending the grasp of worldly experience.
Harris makes the case for another path:
“I can attest that when one goes into silence and meditates for weeks or months at a time, doing nothing else — not speaking, reading, or writing, just making a moment-to-moment effort to observe the contents of consciousness — one has experiences that are generally unavailable to people who have not undertaken a similar practice.”
I know what you’re thinking, that’s a load of bullshit. Believe me, I was right there with you.
People say that less is more, but when it comes down to it, we literally sleep on the sidewalks outside of Apple stores just so we can flex on our broke friends who are still rocking iPhone 7s.
When so many of us are sprinting in the endless pursuit of more gadgets, better cars, bigger houses, more experiences, how is it that one can find wellbeing in willingly giving up these things?
How can sitting around in silence bring me more happiness than binge watching Westworld?
In Waking Up, Harris describes the meditative practice of vipassana as a means for cultivating a state of mind called “mindfulness.” He goes on to define mindfulness as,
“…a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.”
He points out that mindfulness has been well researched and has begun to be adopted by psychologists around the world as a tool for improving one’s psychological wellbeing.
“Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.”
I’m a sucker for science, so I figured if it was supported by the intellectual community, it’s good enough for me.
I started my meditation practice using the mobile app Headspace. The app provides a series of guided meditations where a pleasant-sounding English? man gives easy-to-understand instructions for you to follow along with. Typically, he asks you to calmly pay attention to the physical sensations of the breath and do your best to let go of the thoughts that will inevitably fight for our attention.
I practiced with these 10-minute daily mindfulness meditations for a few months, and while it seemed to be a useful way to calm the mind, there’s no way I could see myself doing it for day, weeks or months at a time to the exclusion of all else.
Harris makes another claim that I had a hard time wrapping my head around,
“…the conventional sense of self is an illusion — and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment.”
If you’re anything like me, just seeing the word “spirituality” makes me cringe a little.
I can’t help but to associate spirituality with the idea of gathering every Sunday in God’s house to consume the literal blood and body of Jesus Christ in the form of stale crackers and two-buck Chuck.
It’s not my aim to piss anyone off here, but I just can’t get on board with that game.
And while I’ve always been skeptical that I have a soul riding around somewhere in this over-sized head of mine, it’s hard to believe that there’s nothing to be found there.
But Harris argues that the self is an illusion and meditation is a means for realizing the true nature of our conscious experience.
He goes on to make some seemingly convincing arguments for why our sense of self is simply a trick that our minds are playing on us, and I encourage you to read them, but I would bet that in this case, seeing is believing.
And while meditation seemed to be improving my mood and focus, the supposed illusion of the self remained.
Which brings me to the fun part — drugs.
Our lives are dictated by our internal drives to alter our conscious experience. We eat street tacos because we like the sensations that play out on our tongues. We watch way too many episodes of Game of Thrones because for a few moments we get to live in a world where making love to your terrifyingly psychotic but damn sexy sister is kinda okay…
In Harris’ slightly more eloquent words,
“Every waking moment — and even in our dreams — we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition towards states of consciousness that we value. Drugs are another means towards this end.”
“Some drugs of extraordinary power and utility, such as psilocybin (the active compound in ‘magic mushrooms’) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), pose no apparent risk of addiction and are physically well tolerated, and yet one can be sent to prison for their use — whereas drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, which have ruined countless lives, are enjoyed ad libitum in almost every society on earth.”
Having been on the receiving end of the pain that comes with having a mother that drinks like a fish and eats pain pills like their Wild Berry Skittles, I can’t help but agree that the legal and ethical lines we draw for which drugs are on the table and not are at best puzzling.
While I don’t want to digress too much, I must try to make the case that lumping psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD into the category of Schedule 1 narcotics while giving the green light for prescription pain killers like fentanyl that are killing hundred of thousands of Americans is fucking crazy.
And this not to say that I think psychedelics are for everyone. There is a wide spectrum of experience that is possible when ingesting a psychedelic like LSD. While I’ve been lucky to have most of my trips trend towards the landscape of profound and blissful, some report to have terrifying and sometimes psychologically debilitating experiences with lasting impact.
If you have serious concerns about your mental health, don’t take psychedelics. I would even be careful about meditation without supervision from a licensed therapist.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s jump into the first time I dropped acid, and why I was swayed to try it in the first place.
Frankly, I was unsatisfied with the life that I was living. Unsatisfied with the relentless lust for more pleasure and less pain.
After reading Waking Up and trying meditation, I felt an inkling of something beyond the default mode network of suffering in which I resided, but I couldn’t quite see the endzone. On my best days of meditation, all I could see was that I was way more neurotic than I had previously given myself credit for.
And while this is generally described as the typical experience had by new meditators, my impatient ass couldn’t help but wonder if there was a shortcut.
Sam roughly describes the goal of mediation being to realize that the self is an illusion in a moment-to-moment basis, and he describes LSD and similar psychedelics as a temporary path towards reaching such a state.
But he urges caution,
“If LSD is like being strapped to a rocket, learning to meditate is like gently raising a sail.”
After a couple months of drifting at sea, I thought to myself, “Fuck sailing. I want to go to space.”
It was a stupidly perfect day in Golden Gate Park, as tears of laughter flooded our faces. A golden retriever was chasing a Frisbee with reckless abandon, and we couldn’t keep our eyes off him. The jubilant dog was sprinting his damn heart out and as the disc would come just into reach, he threw his body towards the Frisbee and thumped into the solid ground, his body violently tumbling in the grass. And is if nothing had happened, he’d pop right back up and jaunt back over to his owner with a dumb smile spread wide across his face. Again, he’d chase that spinning orange disc, and again we’d cry with laughter.
I write this now knowing full well that nobody cares about a clearly mentally challenged dog hitting his head and destroying what little brain cells he has remaining. But after each taking a tab of LSD an hour before, it was the funniest thing the four of us had seen.
After breaking down the logistics of stealing this guy’s dog, I became overwhelmed by just how much was happening in a single moment. Gone was the never-ending movie of my past. Gone was the incessant worrying over things that haven’t yet happened and likely never will. All that remained was everything.
I felt like I had been dreaming my entire life and I was finally awake. I could feel my body being pulled down by gravity in a way I had never appreciated. I could see the vibrant colors and light of the remarkable world before my eyes without getting stuck in the conceptual nature of forms. I could hear so many goddamn sounds. And I could taste like my life depended on fully appreciating every fleeting moment of Hasbro Sour Gummy goodness on my tongue.
If I could sum up the experience, in the best moments, my ego dissolved and with it came the freedom to exist in a space of consciousness devoid of the baggage that comes with the self.
While profound and useful, I came away knowing that taking LSD every day to get back to this space is not an option on the table. Looking at my smartphone felt like opening a portal to another dimension, and the 30-minute Uber ride home may have well been an eternity of harrowingly narrow escapes from death as far as my brain was concerned.
Consistently taking high doses of LSD is not the path towards a happy and productive life.
But I got a taste of going to space. I got to see firsthand what kind of conscious experience may be possible if I were to continue my meditation practice, but without spending the 10,000 — or however many hours — that may be required to get there.
I liken it to being a 10-year-old boy, 4-feet-nothing on your best day, and you set the goal of winning an NBA dunk contest. Possible? Sure, why not kid. Follow your dreams! But damn if it isn’t hard to see the path to get there.
Now imagine that for a day you get to fly around like you’re Michael Jordan.
For me, LSD was like lacing up what must have been horrendously smelly Jordan’s and dunking from the free-line, but instead of balling out like Lil’ Bow Wow in Like Mike, I was witnessing the naturally selfless nature of the mind.
I left the experience not itching to take another tab of acid. Rather, I couldn’t wait to sit down and continue my meditation practice.
So, while my first-time taking LSD was easily one of the best days of my life from a strictly experiential perspective, it was the path the experience led me down, where meditation has become one of the most important and rewarding parts of my life, that has given me confidence in calling my first tango with LSD the best day of my life.
With the help of Sam Harris’ guided-meditation course Waking Up, LSD has led me to practicing meditation daily almost without fail for the last two years. It has led me to have a stronger appreciation for the fragile beauty of nature and the insane luck I have had to be alive in the shoes that I find myself in. And It has led me to embarking on a life-changing 5-day silent meditation retreat with an upcoming 10-day silent meditation retreat on the calendar.
But, I’ll save that story for another day.