Psychonauts Can Also Be Pirates: How to Do Drugs and Get Free
This is a short text originally written for distribution at 4/20 in Montréal. It's written for a mostly non-@ crowd, but hopefully still relevant.
If you smoke weed, you know how much a psychoactive can alter your waking life: how you think, feel, process the world.
I want to talk about how we relate to drugs and how to use them to live vital, free, vivid lives. Each person has their own universe of experience, both on drugs and off. So rather than give a sermon, I invite you to this question:
Which experiences help you see clearly what you want and need?
If you read on, I'll ask even more vague questions, and also not answer those.
The Doors of Perception
When I talk about what we need and want, I'm thinking of us as bodies, as animals, as organisms. I start from the premise that animals know what they need. Millions of generations of adaptations have left us with deep and vivid and reliable perceptual mechanisms. So my own organism, my bodymind, has the final say over any technology or idea or lifeway. Every aspect of my human existence has to pass this test. If you accept the primacy of the creature's experience1, then the jumble of beliefs, theories, ideas, emotional patterns, habits, postures, and dependencies we take on as part of living in this world---they're all suspect.
Do the systems around us, the environments we came up in, the ones we exist in now---do they help us locate what fulfills us? Or do they fill our eyes and ears with the bright, loud messages of people trying to sell us things? Trying to recruit us for this cause or that? Our families and our friends don't always do better. How can they know what you need? They're wading in the same shit. How to make sense of any of this?
What about the weed?
Pre-pre-pretty green bud
All in my blood
Oh I need it
We can take off, now
Oh I know you wanna, smoke
– Kid Cudi, Marijuana
Inasmuch as we use cannabis to alter our bodily and mental functions, I count it as a medicine. Like any other medicine, if you take too much, or take it at the wrong time, or for the wrong reasons, it may harm you.
We also live in a time and place where medicine often means something that enables you to function in a dysfunctional setting. We medicate to wake up, to focus, to relax, to socialize. We medicate to make it through our fucked-up boring jobs, our mysterious chronic pains, and to ease the anxiety at the end of the day.
I want to be clear here:
I believe people have good reasons to use substances the way they do.
What gives me pause is that our medication follows such a clear pattern. Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, amphetamines, relaxants. Uppers to focus, downers to chill. What do these motions have in common? What do these drugs do? With cannabis legalization crossing the North American horizon, there's no better time to think about how this particular medicine fits into the scheme of things.
Warnings and Contraindications
How easily we forget / In order to liiiiiive / But is that analgesic / Preventative? (Preventative? Preventative?...)
– Priests, Design Within Reach
Cannabis opens up to us a world of experiences---sights and sounds and headspaces. At the start and end of the day, though, it acts as a stunningly effective analgesic, a soothing medicine that can be ingested in countless ways. There's good reason for its popularity as a painkiller for folks with chronic pain on their bodymind. It's a balm that we can apply to any part of ourselves.
Balms stand on their own as vital medicine. I would never suggest that we stop using them. But each one of us has a question to face, whether about weed or any of our other soothing habits: if we're constantly applying balms to our burns, is it possible to stop getting burned?
This question feels as difficult as it feels important. Weed can help us through situations we feel powerless to change, whether from the exterior---work, bureaucratic nightmares, the noise of the urban environment---or from the interior, from within our own psyches. Seeing where these pains come from can mean regarding the totality of our lives with as much honesty and compassion as we can muster. But, at least in my own experience, cannabis can easily cloud my senses and my thoughts. After all, it's an anesthetic, right?
I don't see this as a problem with the medicine. I find it's the problem with only using one type of medicine. The same way only growing one crop on some soil depletes it of its life matter, using only one drug will alter our habits, tendencies, and even brain chemistry in a single direction. We're complex organisms; we need, at the very least, some variety.
So if we want to keep the medicinal crop of haze, chill, of floating, we need others in the rotation. I offer as a suggestion the catalysts of groundedness, epiphany, of piercing sunlight, of mental cleansing. We need psychedelics.
That Trippy Shit
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to [one] as it is, Infinite. For [the human] has closed [themself] up, till [they] see all things thro' narrow chinks of [their] cavern.
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Bear with me: psychedelic as a word comes from Greek: psykhe- meaning "mind" + deloun, "to make visible", "to reveal", which in turn came from the proto-Indo-European root *dyeu-, "to shine". Anyone who's taken a substantial dose of one of these medicines will attest to the mind-illuminating qualities they can bring about, like sunshine after a long night.
I decided to use the tired old spell-out-the-etymology bit because I think the pop conception of "psychedelic" has drifted quite a ways from what the inventor of the word meant. More than they alter one's visual perceptions (and grant strange speech patterns and synesthesias), psychedelics strip our mind of layers of noise, habits, emotional patterns and suppressions, assumptions, theories, ideologies, prejudices. Think headspace more than fractals. For a few hours, they cleanse us.
Now, there's a good reason we develop these habits. We adapt as versatile, resilient creatures to the strain of the bullshit around us. But often our defense mechanisms have outlasted their use. Or maybe we just want a few hours of unmediated time with our bodies, our deeper, more intuitive perceptions. That being said, each of us has their own traumas, fears, and pains to account. Each of us carries a universe of potential nightmares, along with possible neurodivergent states of mind that are known to mix poorly with these drugs. Each being must decide for herself, and I want to steer clear of universalizing rhetoric.
If you do choose to approach these headspaces, a deep, chaotic sea awaits your psychonautical journeys.
That's the Idea
So that's it. I want you to trip. Take your shrooms, acid, DMT, 2-C-whatever and go where it takes you...
...but obviously there's more to it. Which drug(s) to do? How much? Where? When? What about "bad trips"?
I would tell you that, more than any other realm, other folks can only guide you so far when it comes to psychedelia. Tripping largely involves encountering yourself and the complex dance of your experience of existence. You can probably avoid the common pitfalls, though. You can find info at the end of this text.
I would tell you that there are as many experiences of and relationships to these headspaces as there are people. As Alexander Shulgin wrote about one of the countless drugs he made and tried and shared with the world:
The most compelling insight of that day was that this awesome recall had been brought about by a fraction of a gram of a white solid, but that in no way whatsoever could it be argued that these memories had been contained within the white solid. Everything I had recognized came from the depths of my memory and my psyche. I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.
The trip happens in the boundless space that is you.
In general, I think the things that liberate us usually carry a fear with them: fear of the possible, the boundless. Sometimes this fear exhilarates me. Sometimes it debilitates. So the wind blows.
Oh the Places You'll Go
And what did it say
It is that, it is this
This goes here, here is there
It is not, yes it is?
It was dulling your senses
Your eyes they were bound
Have you ever, my friends
Been looking around?
– The Cat Empire, Miserère
A trip can make us feel like children again, bare to the world, eyes open, ready to play. In turn, we may find ourselves unable or unwilling to deal with the arbitrary intricacies of social and bureaucratic normalization. Maybe best to do it away from the disapproving.
A trip can make the everyday, the normal, look totally foreign. It can imbue the idiosyncrasies of our lives with strangeness and distaste---or were those always there?
A trip can let us hear our fears out. They'll thrash or scream or babble as they'd been trying to do this whole time.
A trip can leave us horrified at the world, so altered it is from the beauty we've glimpsed in it.
A trip can leave us glowing for days, lighter and yet infused to the soles with awareness.
When tripping we often stumble into the impossible that's resting against our world at angles we hadn't thought to look.
When tripping we can feel the world to be impossibly new, the present moment impossibly unique.
A trip can make us forget how to speak.
A trip can remind us how to laugh.
A trip can make us distrust our clocks.
Holy fuck a trip can make clouds look cool.
But what about the WEED??
While tripping certainly alters the rhythm of our baseline consciousness, it specifically focuses and contextualizes the arc of our other experience-modifying motions. The trip sets the ebb and flow of these psychoactives against its raw, clear headspace. A lot of bullshit and noise just fades away against the backdrop. Apart from these silhouettes, psychedelia leaves us with scrapes and bruises that heal into callouses2, along with a sense of determination in our spines that lingers. Fuck, the afterglow is nice.
Beyond all this, psychedelics will simply change how you experience other drugs. I couldn't tell you why. A lot of folks around me have found their taste for being high changed after particularly important trips. Sometimes to distaste, sometimes not. Sometimes folks just realized they need some time away from it.
I would argue that an experienced tripper will take on other drugs (even drugs as mundane as alcohol) with two unusually developed faculties:
- a taste for vividness of experience and for noticing how your headspace changes, and
- practice in your own head with Rule #1 of tripping: DON'T PANIC.
What will that mean for your own dynamic with weed? Maybe nothing. Maybe you'll just like sativas more. Fuck if I know. All I know is that I wouldn't take back even a single trip I've had, and that I feel a whole lot of gratitude for how much it's helped me negotiate my way with the herb.
The more I trip, the more certain I feel about what I want for myself and those around me. I almost never leave a trip feeling like I have new knowledge. Instead I feel oriented toward more self-discovery, more care and attentiveness to my own emotional needs, more dreaming.
I hope you find beautiful fucking wonders in the world without words.
If you don't accept the primacy of the individual experience, I'm afraid you won't get much out of the rest of what I have to say. I also urge you to try these substances and see what you find. It may change your mind. I know that's a circular argument. The circle is a good shape.↩
Lots of trips have hurt people so badly they don't heal fully. I won't deny that these harms that surpass one's resilience---therefore traumas---happen to folks who use psychedelics. I do think, without saying people "should" have known better or some bullshit, that you can avoid them almost completely with the right precaution. I also think the underground-ness of prohibition makes people explore this dangerous realm with little to no information or context. Please be careful. See the resources at the end, and don't hesitate to contact me if you have questions.↩