How can it be possible to describe, in words, something that so many have defined as “indescribable”? How can a constant stream of semi-conscious ranting for five hours be recalled, consolidated, and applied to the continuation of everyday life, after the fact? Psychedelics seem to have a confusing “on again, off again” relationship with the general public, creating both fascinating intrigue and horrifying fear. People, mostly in the scientific and political communities, can’t seem to decide whether psychedelics should be considered as a productive addition to the world or not. For most, it looms as a mysterious, underground substance that throws your brain off-kilter, flowing through the most “far out” and “rebellious” factions of society. For others, it’s the key that unlocks a world of uncharted mental territory that we can’t otherwise reach in our regular state of consciousness. As Pollan describes in a New York Times article written for the publication of his book, How To Change Your Mind, the best way to convey an experience is to have it yourself and then attempt to describe it afterwards (Pollan, 2018). That being said, it just so happens that I recently had an experience with psilocybin mushrooms. In an effort to capture the epiphanies and emotions of the experience that I am now trying to recount in a normal state of consciousness, here is my attempt at describing the indescribable.
As Pollan references throughout his book, set and setting are two very important factors when going through a psychedelic experience. Response to Psilocybin are predicted by a number of factors including dosage and personality traits (Russ et al. 2019). But two of the most important predictors of psychedelic response are what’s known as set and setting (Leary et al. 1963). Set refers to your mindset going into the experience. If you’re having a terrible day, for example, those negative emotions that are fresh in your mind will probably come out in full force when you are in an altered state of consciousness, for better or (most likely) for worse. Same goes for if you go in with a positive mental state. Setting refers your physical environment. Are you outdoors or indoors? Who are you with? What kinds of things are you directly surrounded by? Psychedelics are also hallucinogenic which means that whatever you look at while tripping is going to look right back at you, probably not in the way you are used to (Pollan, 2019).
I began this adventure indoors, with two other individuals, both good and trusted friends. The space was enough to fit about 4 or 5 people comfortably. There was certainly a lot hanging on the walls which made it so that there was always something to focus my attention on. My past experience with psychedelics is slim. I’ve had two experiences micro-dosing on LSD and one past experience with mushrooms, half as much as I took for this most recent experience. It’s safe to say that I was relatively new to the experiences and sensations but that I had some idea of what was to come. It was about 10am when we dosed and by 11am we were on the come up. I have only two other timestamps to reference for this experience as I was not aware of time for the majority of this trip. In fact, we all made a point to put away our phones and watches to be able to be fully present. My first recollection of entering an altered state of consciousness was when I began staring at a painting on the wall. It was a scene depicting a sunset over the water. After a few moments of observing I began to realize that the water was moving and shimmering in the sunlight, like the scene had come to life. At this point, I was still able to tell myself, “Ok, this is not normal. Let it begin…” and make final preparations for what was about to transpire.
The next hour or so was pure joy. I laughed harder than I’ve ever laughed before, so much so that at one point I was afraid I would throw up from laughing so hard. The three of us started by making observations about the room, finding random things to make fun of and laugh at. Pretty soon, we began to lean into our visual experiences as well, talking about what we saw happening right in front of our eyes. We talked about our own personal perspectives of the room based on where we were sitting and how we forgot about everything in our peripheral. We talked about how the door was melting and how the blankets swirled together on the floor. As we acknowledged the room, my friend, whose room we were in, began to get emotional at how much he appreciated the space and how much he was going to miss it (he is graduating from college this spring). Coming back to the common room after using the bathroom was interesting, seeing it from a new perspective and taking in all that was in my new line of vision. So, I stayed there and my two friends followed suit. We were now occupying the small hallway that connected the bathroom to the common area. Once our laughter brought us all to the floor, we found ourselves staring at the ceiling. This is when I noticed that the origami swans hanging from the ceiling were flapping their wings. I noticed the shadows made by the pipes on the ceiling creating a kind of mountain landscape for these birds to fly in. It was also in this stage when my friend urged us all to feel our stomachs and become aware of our own bodies and the different processes and functions that go on within them.
The first timestamp I can remember after dosing was 1:41pm. At this point, the three of us had returned to the common room and things became very somber. We stopped talking about what we were seeing and started talking about how we were feeling. I think once the initial novelty of hallucinating wore off we were able to think about more abstract ideas. We talked about our relationships with our parents, past loves, old friends and so on. Personally, I sank into a pit of nostalgia, reminiscing about past Colby memories and people. Every once in a while we would get sidetracked and notice something particularly funny or notice the Grateful Dead music that was playing the entire time, and then sink back into the same sullen mood that seemed to always find its way back into the space from this point on. It was all very sporadic. Our discussion moved in a pattern of introducing a topic, making a few comments about it, and retreating back into silence for an extended period of time.
Things went on this way for another hour or so and then at 2:56pm I checked the time again and was coming back to the world of reality. Things around the room were not swirling anymore, but I still felt a heaviness inside me that I believe was felt by everyone. The friend who was hosting us, in particular, seemed to enter a mental state of uneasiness that was portrayed by standing in a corner with a dissatisfied look on his face. In this moment, I did not believe that I had the ability to support another human being, as much as I may have wanted to. I continued a conversation with the second friend, while our host stood in the corner, trying to reconcile the fact that he had become blissfully unaware of many important things since entering this semi-conscious realm (COVID, the weather, certain individuals etc.).
Eventually, around 4pm or so, we all started to ease up a bit on our emotional intensity and make light-hearted conversation again. From here, things continued in the same pattern of short talk breaks with long stretches of silence, but in a more social, relaxed tone. We had all reentered our reality and could consider things other than the comedy of our hallucinations or the hardships in our lives. In the come down, we all maintained an extremely mellow and relaxed state of mind, giving each other massages, eating snacks, and sharing funny anecdotes. This marked the end of our journey together and by the conclusion of the come down I felt a sense of unity with my two friends for having underwent such an intense shared experience together. I felt closer to both of them and had a deeper appreciation for the things that were right in front of me: the people, the space, the lighting, the music etc. The deep vulnerability mixed with the gut ripping laughter I experienced made me feel like we had all just spent a weekend together when in actuality it had been about 6 hours (still a very long time together).
I can’t say that I had a profound spiritual experience, nor can I say that it benefitted my mental health in any significant way. I didn’t come to any major epiphanies that I didn’t already know but simply felt like I was rooted more deeply within them. We talked about marriage, love, the power of music, just to name a few subjects. There were points where I wished I could’ve been alone for a bit. Being in the woods the last time I tripped I had complete freedom to simply start walking on my own for however long I wanted. Being confined to a space meant that I didn’t have as much control over my environment. I was forced to feel everything that the people around me were feeling and we all felt our emotions as one entity. From this experience alone I cannot say what the future of psychedelics should be, but I can conclude that it certainly changes the way your brain processes thoughts and memories. It manipulates and affects what we notice in the world around us and that is definitely something worth paying attention to.
Leary, T. Litwin, GH. Metzner, R. (1963.) Reactions to Psilocybin Administered in a Supportive Environment. J Nerv Ment Dis 137:561–573
Pollan, M. (2018). How Does a Writer Put a Drug Trip Into Words? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/24/books/review/psychedelics-how-to-change-your-mind.html?auth=link-dismiss-google1tap.
Pollan, M. (2019). How to Change Your Mind. Penguin Books.
Russ, S. L., Carhart-Harris, R. L., Maruyama, G., & Elliott, M. S. (2019). Replication and Extension of a Model Predicting Response to Psilocybin. Psychopharmacology, 236(11), 3221–3230. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-019-05279-z