“It’s like being in a painting and seeing poetry,” I finally said.
We’d been quietly sitting there for a while: at the edge of an empty beach, our feet soaked in water, with the sun setting over the stillness of the ocean.
Looking back, my comment doesn’t make much sense. And had anyone else been there with us, they, too, would have had questions. But she knew what I meant, and at the time, it was the only way I could have described what I felt.
The orange rays of the descending sun weren’t just illuminating the sky that day, and my experience of them wasn’t just visual. Rather, they had seamlessly integrated themselves with the heavy blue of the water, the delicate green of the surrounding trees, and the light yellow of the sand we were sitting on, creating an enveloping mix of colors that surrounded the two of us like a living, breathing wave of emotion.
I have always had a defensive reaction to the word love. Not that I don’t believe it’s important, or that it hasn’t been abundant in my own life, but I just feel that it seems to promise more than it can deliver. And yet, sitting there with someone I cared intimately about, I sensed for the first time in my life that I really understood a small part of what it meant.
I’d been with her for a while by then, and despite our occasional meanderings on the topic of drug use, it wasn’t until that day in January we found ourselves in a place where we could finally share an experience together.
In the morning, we had taken a few grams of psychedelic mushrooms. Strong enough to distort our sensory reality and heighten our emotional responses but not quite powerful enough to completely lose our sense of control.
We spent the next few hours getting lost in foreign streets, in awe at the vividness and contradiction of a culture so different from our own, and with every minute, we found ourselves growing closer without a touch or a word to guide us. Eventually, we made our way down to that beach.
For many years, I have had a complicated relationship with drugs.
I’m experimental by nature, and if something — no matter how unfamiliar — is meaningful to a large group of people, I’ll at least flirt with it. It’s who I am.
Diversity in experience fuels diversity in thought. There are far too many things in life that just don’t make sense until you’ve had the luxury to make sense of them as they occur to you. It doesn’t matter how curious you are or how broadly you read; not everything can be intellectualized and judged before it’s been anatomically experienced.
It’s likely no surprise, then, that when it comes to drugs, I haven’t always held back. In fact, more than a few times, I have pushed too far.
At a young age, most of us are taught about the dangers of ingesting substances that alter our brain chemistry and the addictive effects that some of them can have on us. I will avoid repeating too much of that here, but I will say that all of that holds true when it comes to many of the most commonly abused drugs, and there is a very good reason to avoid them.
At the same time, however, I struggle with the modern compartmentalization of the different drugs. In particular, I find it irresponsible that in many countries substances like LSD and magic mushrooms —both of which are non-addictive, have limited side-effects in the majority of cases, and are even showing promise in treating various mental health issues in modern research — are put in the same legal category as cocaine and heroin.
Not only are we content disrupting the lives of everyday people who want to safely interact with substances that are far less dangerous than something like alcohol, but we are also seemingly okay with reinforcing a dated stigma that stops millions of people from experiencing a different side of reality.
Today, my interaction with most drugs is reasonably contained and limited, but for the last half-decade of my life, I have tried to consume either LSD or magic mushrooms twice a year. Sometimes more.
While I don’t walk around recommending them to every person I meet— I’m aware that they, too, can have unpleasant side-effects if care isn’t taken — I do often wonder if those who never experience this profound shift in reality can really say that they have fully experienced the world.
People often talk about how nothing prepares you for how you, as a person, will change when you have kids. You can do all the research you want, and you can project based on other people’s experiences, but it won’t entirely capture the intimate details of parenthood like an experience does.
Somewhat similarly, psychedelic drugs provide a window into corners of the human psyche — corners that often inspire unimaginable forms of bliss and personal growth — that are otherwise not accessible to us at all. These are parts of the mind that have changed millions of lives for the better. Should that really be something we aggressively shun and discourage?
Any time I tell someone that many of the most beautiful moments in my life have occurred under the influence of drugs, I prepare to be judged.
Invariably, the person in question will point out the strangeness of something so seemingly artificial meaning so much — as in, surely real life has enough to offer on its own that we don’t need a false kind of overlay.
Maybe we don’t need anything. In fact, the lives of the majority suggest precisely that. But the problem here is that we are inherently biased against anything that is unfamiliar. As such, whatever is unfamiliar will take on the label artificial, automatically claiming a lesser value.
For example, who is to say that the seemingly distorted reality I experience when I’m on LSD or magic mushrooms is any less real than right now?
I could actually make the opposite argument. We know that evolution doesn’t program us for truth, but for survival. There are many hidden parts of reality — that would be picked up by the senses of other animals — that we can’t even come close to experiencing because that wasn’t what we evolved for.
In this case, the fact that my senses are augmented or my mind enhanced to a particular kind of perception when under the influence of certain drugs may not necessarily mean that I’m seeing something that shouldn’t be there. Maybe what I’m seeing is what has always been there and what merely required a different pattern of mental activity to be observed.
After his own experience with mescaline, the great 20th-century author Aldous Huxley famously suggested that the human brain acted like what he called a reducing valve, that its function was to limit certain kinds of input from the world so that we would be able to maintain our functionality.
Scientifically speaking, we don’t know enough about the mind to conclusively say whether or not he was right, but it’s not an insane proposition.
If I walked around always seeing the kind of breathtaking beauty that I see when I’m high, I would likely forget to eat, and I would definitely not want to show up and do work every day. It’s not very conducive to survival.
While it’s easy to call unfamiliar experiences like these artificial and to deny them of their value, it’s just as easy to take the other side and to argue that they are even more real than the reality we are confined to.
Our perception of the world is incredibly fragile. And if there is anything we have learned through our cultural evolution, it’s that the only thing we can say with absolute certainty is that we have many reasons to exercise a very profound kind of humility when it comes to what is and what isn’t true.
The value of an experience extends beyond how we choose to define it.
For the longest time, I didn’t think I had gained any profound insight into the nature of reality, or wisdom about how to live, by doing psychedelics.
I reasoned my use as a way of routinely remembering the heightened bliss you experience when your senses are fully aware of the world and when your feelings are completely attuned to the people and things around you.
Except, I overlooked one thing. I underestimated just how deeply the taste of those heightened experiences can infect your day to day consciousness.
Some people will argue that you don’t need to take drugs to learn about the kind of things that many others take away from their trips. And maybe you don’t. But these people make the mistake of assuming that what is felt when the brain is in such states of mind can be reduced down to clear thoughts that are available to be digested like a fortune cookie.
In reality, that’s not how it works. Anything I verbalize about my experiences may sound trite and tired and possibly even obvious — things that you could have figured out by putting two and two together.
Yet, me knowing these things isn’t what changed my behavior. What actually changed my behavior was the fact that I felt their effect so intensely to the core of my very being that, over time, I became a different person.
For me, this process was gradual. I didn’t just get off a trip and decide that I was suddenly spiritual, or that I now know what it means to live.
What happened was that, one day, I was walking by a range of winter trees, without any color or leaves — trees that I had previously always found notably repulsive and that I felt made winters quite gloomy because they looked and felt dead — and suddenly, I was in awe. I could see the same patterns of beauty in them that I had noticed a few days earlier when my senses were artificially heightened. The winters no longer feel gloomy.
What happened was that, one day, I decided to revisit the classical music we had played while on a particular strain of LSD, and right then and there, even as someone who isn’t musically educated and doesn’t usually listen to that specific type, I could sense its complexity and immediately see why it mattered, and why good art may just be the only true thing. Listening to music hasn’t been the same since.
What happened was that, one day, right after I had spent those hours with the girl at the beach, I realized that the issue was never that the word love promised too much, but that I hadn’t been promising enough. My identity was built around an aloof kind of confidence that stopped me from ever caring enough about anything to fully commit to it. I had been asking too much and giving too little. And seeing that, I started to do it differently. I no longer ask anything of someone other than myself.
All human growth occurs due to some process that occurs in the mind. We see something, we feel something, we hear something, we smell something, we taste something, or we think something that alters how our brain experiences reality. Psychedelic drugs are a tool that augments these capabilities.
You don’t need them to grow, just like you don’t need therapy to heal or books to learn, but if used correctly, they can provide another means to a better end.
I’m not sure how different my life would be today if I hadn’t experienced their effects in my earlier years, but I do know that the closeness I feel to the world and the people in it can at least partially be attributed to them.
I still can’t tell you the purpose of life. I just know that I feel nearer to living it.
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