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What Do Psychedelics Actually Do For You Anyway?

Without therapy, psychedelics do precisely one thing, and boy is it valuable

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A man on a motorcyle pumping his fist in excitement

It’s all about the curves in life and on the road - Midjourney

I’ve had my life upended in the past month, but it’s becoming clear now that, as with all major changes, it’s really for the better. My life’s path is taking a turn I wasn’t expecting, but that’s where the fun is right, on the curves? Vroom vroom!

I’m going on an annual psychedelic retreat next week, and I’ve been using the techniques and personal learnings of my recent past to help me cope with the chaos. It occurs to me that a primer on psychedelics might be useful for any of you who are getting into it or are thinking about trying it out.

Psychedelics coupled with psychotherapy can achieve amazing outcomes, treating depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and myriad other pathologies. However psychedelics on their own — what exactly do they do? And after five years of psychedelic therapy, am I really any different?

In my view, both psychedelics and meditation do precisely one thing, and they both do it quickly. They give you a teensy tiny space (that you can enlarge) between you, and your thoughts. They allow you to realize that you are not your thoughts.

I went through my first 40 years of life pretty much saying anything that came into my head. I would hear Zig Ziglar and other famous speakers say the key to good relationships was to ‘taste your words before you spit them out’, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that. It turns out the key is to hear your thoughts and then have the you who heard that thought decide what you’re going to think, say, or do next. Don’t let it be automatic.

We don’t know how psychedelics work. Taking a normal dose of LSD, MDMA or mushrooms without therapy isn’t likely to change you in any way, for the better or for the worse. We don’t know if psychedelics dampen the Default Mode Network (DMN) or expand the Theory of Mind (ToM) network or operate by some other mechanism.

We do believe that psychedelics don’t do anything you can’t accomplish on your own by practicing meditation, but they do it a heck of a lot quicker. If your objective is to climb a mountain, you can hike, or you can take a helicopter. You get to the same place, but I suspect there is some value in learning how to mountain climb.

Taking psychedelics has enabled me to meditate, something that I couldn’t sit still long enough to do earlier in my life. I find now I can meditate independently of psychedelics, but climbing the mountain first with psilocybin gave me a better feel for what the top of the mountain looked like, and it’s helped me navigate the mountain as I learn to climb.

In the meantime, knowing that I’m not my thoughts has been immensely valuable. The babble of voices in my head can be better explained by Internal Family Systems (IFS), and I can modulate those conversations directly rather than just tolerating the cacophony. IFS posits that our personalities are made up of many members of an internal family, each of whom has its own personality and perceived role. Often, these personalities were formed at a much earlier age, and they continue to behave in ways that were helpful at age five, but markedly less helpful at age 50.

As you investigate these personalities through IFS therapy, you’ll gain much control over what you think is your subconscious behaviour. But it’s actually conscious behaviour. It’s just not your consciousness that’s grabbing that beer, eating that donut, or punching that wall. It’s a difficult thing to get your head around, but you will.

Start with psychedelics or meditation (or both) to hear the voices, understand that they’re not you, and then get to know yourself better. You’ll be happy you did. And how am I different now that I’ve been doing psychedelic therapy for five years and meditating regularly for two years? I know myself better. I’m more serene. I have more energy. I’m more curious. I’m a better husband and father. I’m a better friend and colleague.

And after all of this self-exploration, both through psychedelics and meditation, I’ve realized just how little I know, and how much of a dick I’ve been for much of my life, and probably still am. But now I know, and I’m climbing this mountain of self-discovery.

The view’s pretty great halfway up, and I imagine it just keeps getting better.

Much of this article was originally posted in August 2023. Psychedelic therapies are gradually continuing to gain acceptance and legal status around the world.

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