A Public and Private Trip to Understand the Mind

Artwork by carsonsadam

Susan Blackmore gives a personal account of how hallucinogens have influenced her career.

I am so glad I took LSD – and mescaline, and psilocybin, and even DMT which must surely have given me the most terrifying 15 minutes of my entire life. But why? The reasons are both intellectual and personal – because of everything these drugs have taught me about mind, self, consciousness and how to live life as an imperfect human being. I am sure that if I’d never taken them, my life would have followed quite a different course. I might have accepted that sensible PhD place I was offered and had a proper academic career. I might have got a job. I might have… Of course I cannot imagine what completely different life might have unfolded, but there is no doubt that my lifelong obsession with the mystery of consciousness has been aided and abetted by hallucinogens.

This all began in my first term of a degree in psychology and physiology at Oxford University, towards the end of the hippy era, when cannabis (sometimes called a ‘minor hallucinogen’) was widely available – this was the low-THC, high-CBD, old-fashioned make-you-high hash, not modern skunk weed. Sitting listening to music late one night I found myself going down an intensely realistic tunnel of trees towards an alluring bright light. When a friend asked me where I was, I struggled to come back, remembered I must be in a college bedroom, and was suddenly looking down from above. There followed over two hours of the most intense and extraordinary experiences, starting with a classic out-of-body experience, dramatic changes of body- and self-image, traveling in strange worlds, and culminating in mystical states of unity and selflessness.

How could I make sense of this? I had read about astral projection and was faintly intrigued by tales of the paranormal but nothing had prepared me for such an inner adventure. This was years before the term ‘near-death experience’ was coined, and I had no idea that tunnels are common in cultures that use hallucinogens for spiritual or ritual purposes. Nothing in my undergraduate studies was remotely relevant and I knew nothing of mystical or spiritual experiences.

I guess my ‘career’, if it can be called that, began from that day. I knew that I had visited other worlds. I knew that my spirit or soul or astral body could live independently. I knew that my physical body was just a shell inhabited by something far greater with powers of telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition. I was so sure I was right, and that all my ‘close-minded, materialistic’ lecturers were wrong, that I was determined to become a parapsychologist and prove it.

I was wrong on all counts. I did become a parapsychologist. For my PhD (part-time and self-funded as no one was going to pay for it) I carried out dozens of experiments to test my memory theory of ESP but I could find no ESP, either then or in many years of getting by as a freelancer with occasional tiny research grants. It was a long and instructive route to learning that all those assumptions I’d so hastily jumped to back in 1970 were false; that there is probably no ESP and that nothing leaves the body in an out-of-body experience. Yet the intense memory of those precious few hours endured – and remained inexplicable.

There is a genuine mystery here – the ‘mind–body problem’ or the ‘hard problem of consciousness’, the relationship between subjective experience and the objective world. I did experiments and surveys, I studied psychology and neuroscience, but if I was to understand subjective experience I needed to investigate directly as well. So I had my head zapped with magnetic fields and tried weird machines and gadgets. I explored deep relaxation, lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis. I learned to meditate. And I took drugs.

My first psychedelic experience was with LSD, which must be the ultimate psychedelic, although far from being my favourite. Effective in minuscule doses, LSD takes you on a ‘trip’ that lasts eight to 10 hours but can seem like forever. Every sense is enhanced or distorted, objects change shape and form, terrors flood up from your own mind, and joy appears in the simplest thing. The trouble is, there’s no escape – no antidote, no way to stop the journey into the depths of your own mind – and to be of any use, the visions and insights need integrating into your normal life afterwards. In my twenties, I used to take LSD, mescaline or psilocybin a few times a year. This was quite enough, for a major hallucinogen is not an adventure to be undertaken lightly.

I’ve met horror with several hallucinogens, including visions of torture and cruelty, of death and disintegration, of self-loathing and of the terrible void. I can understand how such visions can become a ‘bad trip’, though that has never happened to me. One of the lessons these drugs can teach you is how to stay aware and calm in the face of anything your mind can throw up. I appreciate these hard lessons.

People often say I must be very brave, but I don’t agree. I took hallucinogens and other drugs because I wanted to explore the further reaches of human consciousness. I gave up my only full-time academic job (Reader at the University of the West of England, Bristol) after a few years because it took me away from research I was desperate to continue. I was once paid several times the normal rate for writing an article called ‘I take illegal drugs for inspiration’ by the Telegraph because, they said, it was so brave to speak up. But it wasn’t brave.
I wanted to share what I’d learned. I wanted people to know what value these drugs can have if taken carefully and treated with respect – if used for real exploration or spiritual purposes, rather than for fun or escape. Hallucinogens provide no escape, in fact the reverse. There’s no hiding from your own mind in the midst of a five-hour adventure with mescaline, a 15-minute onslaught from DMT or even the brief moments of revelation induced by nitrous oxide. This is one reason they have been so valuable to me.

For much of my life these inner explorations stayed separate from my academic work. Both were inspired by my longing to understand the mind, but one was public; the other private. Yet gradually they came together. And a shift has happened in the world of consciousness studies too. Back in the 1970s ‘consciousness’ was a dirty word in any scientific context, but from the 1990s that changed. There are now plenty of psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists struggling with the ‘hard problem’, and an increasing number who combine an academic study of consciousness with a personal life of meditation, inner exploration or spiritual practice.

For me this coming-together of the inner and outer worlds has been crucial. I have trained in Zen for 30 years and this, and my drug experiences, have informed all my writings on self, free will and consciousness. I refer to them all as illusions because I believe they are not what they seem to be in our normal state of consciousness. We feel as if we are a persisting self that has consciousness and magical free will. But in other states of consciousness we know we are fleeting and ephemeral constructions without power or continuity; just part of a universe that is not divided into mind and body.

It’s a well-worn but apt metaphor that a hallucinogen trip can be like taking a plane to the highest peak. You see how things really are; you know the truth; you laugh at the cosmic joke; but then you have to come back down again. Relying on plane rides is no way to live your life, but nor is it worthless. For some the experience is inspiring; for others it is best forgotten; but for some, like myself, it just deepens our longing to understand – whether that is through personal experience or through science.

There are so many questions. What is happening in the brain? Who or what is the self that changes so radically? Are the visions comparable with mystical insights? Is the sudden understanding of the power of love the same as that reached through prayer or meditation? Is the involuntary reliving of what we’ve done and whom we’ve loved or hurt, the same as the life review in near-death experiences? Is the terror of letting go of self, or the joyful realisation that ‘I’ am not other than the universe, the oneness or nonduality found in so many traditions? Or is it all just drug-based delusion?

And one last question – how can I get there without the plane? The slow climb must surely be hard work and may take a lifetime but the occasional trip to remind me of the view keeps me going.

This article was originally published on thepsychologist.bps.org.uk.


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