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The central project of the human mind is to achieve altered states of consciousness. It's woven into our neurochemistry. Whether it’s through intense athletic competition, watching a riveting romantic film, retreating to an exotic island, getting lost in a dance club all night—we crave new experiences that transcend our mundane reality and get us out of our head.
Our default mental state — "the tyranny of self", as I like to call it — often becomes so insufferably obsessive, distracted, restless, and dissatisfied. Even when things are going well, our mind is never in a place of true peace and equanimity.
As entrepreneur Naval Ravikant says, “The peace that we seek is not peace of mind, it's peace from mind.”
One close friend of mine, who I will pseudonymously name Paul, was seeking such peace from his mind — the sleepless chatter machine that had terminally fixated on a romantic interest who never reciprocated. At the starry-eyed age of 21, he had hit the lowest point in his life. Dejection, hopelessness, anxiety, and despondency characterized his daily experiences, and it was conspicuous when in his company. He would say things like, "I've given up on marriage at this point. I'll be lonely forever," in a serious and dejected manner.
"Tell me you're joking," I would say — but the reassuring response I was looking for never came.
After hearing Paul express his misery for a few months, I offered to give him a small taste of the fruit of the Gods — a powerful respite from the chronically overthinking mind. Paul is quite religious (Christian), and when I had first told him about my newfound interest in psychedelia on an earlier occasion, he had reflexively dismissed the whole project as pseudo-religious, mind-deranging heresy. However, biblical teachings and prayer were ineffective at relieving his grief.
His mental state had precipitously devolved since I’d introduced the topic. Regular meditation practice (through the Waking Up app), my first recommendation to him, was helpful to a limited extent, but it could not extinguish the incessant over-rumination about this uninterested girl with whom he was in love. He was desperate for something to help break his unrequited romantic obsession. He was suddenly open to violate whatever silly religious bias he had against psychedelic medicines and do a little harmless experimentation with me (a compound like psilocybin in small doses is far safer than most prescription drugs in one's cabinet — there is no lethal dose, in fact).
Anything to achieve peace from mind.
As a slightly hesitant but optimistic shamanic improviser, I decided for us both to take a gram of psilocybin mushrooms. My only experience with psychedelics until that point was slightly lower microdoses, which didn't have any significant effect. A few months ago, I had taken one gram, and all I could recall was doing an unusually deep meditation afterwards and feeling the subtle onset of emotional release, though it never actualized.
Here we were on Dec 29 in my basement. We measured out the crusty, grayish powder into each of our spoons and gulped it down with our noses plugged. Ground-up, dried magic mushrooms look and smell like something approximating pulverized human skeleton. There's no glamorizing the wretched appearance and taste of the supposed "chemical gateway to God," as Joe Rogan puts it.
(magic mushroom companies: feel free to hire me as your advertising executive)
I didn't expect to witness or experience anything different from my previously underwhelming microdosing experiences. I was ready to just have a normal conversation with my friend with some possibly subtle mental noises.
That's not what happened. At all.
An hour in, Paul became unusually interested in the objects in the room: the posters on the wall, the sticky notes, various books. Not from a conceptual perspective (most of the posters in my room were associated with my interests in philosophy, self-help wisdom, and pop music). He merely became interested in looking at them — for no apparent reason.
Experiencing this subtle change in consciousness, at one point, Paul burst out laughing like a child. “I feel like I have a choice… to either pay attention to the experience or keep thinking,” he said.
Our initial suspicions about experiencing the placebo effect at the half-hour point had completely shattered. Our state of mind had been altered.
Soon after noticing these changes and discussing them, I said, "I really don't feel like talking anymore. I just want to experience this."
He agreed. There was something visceral to feel in this state, rather than conceptually grasp. We moved to another room where there was a mattress and a comfortable sofa-bed. He wanted to lie down with blankets. I relaxed on the couch with my feet up. We both wore eye shades.
In this new, tranquil, dark environment, we briefly chatted but quickly became disinterested in the whole endeavor of communication. Confabulating about whatever nuisance was perturbing our consciousness, as we usually did, seemed like a pointless exercise.
"Woah, the mental chatter in the background is turned off," Paul observed.
Talking doesn't stop in the absence of social company; it's merely internalized. We spend our whole day neurotically having a conversation with ourselves, internally narrating our experiences and reminding ourselves of all the reasons we should or shouldn't be happy. Those who don't realize this haven't been paying attention to the mechanics of their mind.
This mental chatter took a beautiful pause under the influence of a psilocybin microdose. Neither of us saw purpose in either engaging in conversation or fixating our minds on some past thought or future hope.
Experiencing the present moment was the only thing that mattered.
Buoyed by this development, Paul said he wanted to taste something to get a more vivid feel for this new superpower.
We had a few leftover chocolates from Christmas that we tried. He opened an O'Henry bar, took a bite, and was overjoyed by the unexpectedly enchanting sensory experience.
"Oh, my goodness. This is the best chocolate bar I've ever had! I've never tasted something this good."
It was quite the spectacle. Paul was fully immersed in the present moment, and his perception was uncontaminated with any toxic thoughts about the past or delusions about the future. Such an experience is quite common with various psychedelic compounds. Magic mushrooms are especially known to put your mind in a state of heightened awareness and indivisible connection with your surroundings.
Studies show psilocybin disrupts the default mode network (DMN), the region in our brain responsible for recollecting the past, projecting into the future, and cementing a rigid sense of self. This part of the brain is activated when we are ruminating or engaging in repetitive thought patterns. Interestingly, long-term meditators have diminished activity in their default mode network because they are trained to observe and concentrate on what their heightened senses (sight, hearing, taste, etc.) detect in the present moment.
Paul's post-trip thoughts on temporarily overcoming his obsessive fixation with this girl confirmed this brief neurological shift:
"I purposefully tried, but I couldn't conjure up any emotions for Becca. It was remarkable. In my normal, sober state, I frequently conjure feelings of sadness and deep longing for her. The fact that I couldn't suggests that specific part of my mind had been shut off by the drug."
The other insight he had a couple of days after the trip was also quite interesting:
"I realized that the psilocybin experience fundamentally changed my thinking about boredom. I no longer believe that you can be bored when alone in a room. In fact, it makes me a bit excited now, like it’s a perfect chance to totally focus on anything and everything around me."
It's almost like us mindless plebeians must get high on mushrooms to reach the default waking state of meditation wizards like Sam Harris. Paul unknowingly echoed what Sam said in my conversation with him a couple of weeks ago:
"It's not that making any [major life] changes would be a bad thing. It might make total sense to move out and find a partner and do all kinds of things that are different from what you're doing now. All that's fine, but there's nothing intrinsically boring about being in a room in your house either. Sitting on a meditation retreat makes you recognize that boredom isn't real. Boredom is just a failure to pay attention… you can disabuse yourself of boredom for all time on a silent retreat."
It strikes me that the implications of this experience are extraordinarily profound. Imagine if we could simply let go of our neurotic thought patterns and enjoy what's in front of us. Imagine if we had a mindfulness button we could press that would completely immerse us in the present moment.
Once one achieves such a state, sensory experience becomes amplified. Food tastes better, and sights become more interesting. The sense of self illusively reified by engaging in mental ping-pong all day — "Should I text her or not? I think I should… but that might be a bad idea," in Paul's case — is diminished. Awareness of consciousness, and its contents, grows.
After this experience, "boredom isn't real" no longer seems like such a radical idea. It's amazing what calm and mindful states can achieve. Psychedelics are the best and most convenient tools for uncovering such paradigm-shifting possibilities. Meditation, prayer, chanting, and other spiritual practices can also reveal such insights, but they require dedicated effort and often faith in religious dogma.
At their best, such psychological sojourns serve as an indelible reference point in our lives of how to optimally engage with our present reality. They remind us of our true nature, connected more with the real world than the delusions of our imagination.
All this, with only one sacramental gram of mushrooms. Incredible.
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