Then I’d write them down and show them off to my friends. But that’s all my experiments with altered states of consciousness were about. Seeing how many “souvenirs” I could bring back from my journeys into the cracks and crevasses of my subconscious mind. Brent had a different perspective on the Shamanic experience. He talked about self-discovery, “shadow work,” and permanently expanding your awareness. But the second he brought up psychedelics, I was harpooned with memories of the “Just Say No to Drugs” program I sat through during EVERY year of middle school. Besides, I didn’t need to learn anything else about myself. I just wanted to write cool music. Still– out of boredom, curiosity, or maybe just an attempt to prove I didn’t need his “medicines”– I agreed to be the Seventh guest at Brent’s house the following night. Five people dosed. Brian was drinking ordinary herbal tea with honey. I spent the first hour alone in Brent’s den with a notepad on my lap. I was not expecting what came next. “Get them out! Get them out!” Sandy shrieked, raking her nails across her red-raw forearms. “You’re okay, Sandy.” Brent assured her. “You’re in a safe place.” But no one could calm her. Puffy-eyed, mascara streaking down her face, she beat and scratched at the “bugs” under her skin. I immediately wished I’d spent the night in my prayer closet. Sandy was having a challenging trip. And she wasn’t alone. Outside, Brian was curled up on the lawn, his voice hoarse from screaming at his dad. But he was hundreds of miles away and probably snoring in front of his big screen TV by now. To me, Brian and Sandy looked like “psychedelic tourists” having their first (and last) journey through the depths of their own souls. As I’m writing this, nearly 25 years later, I realize that I was no more than a tourist myself. I just happened to know what kind of souvenirs I wanted to take back with me. I watched five people take their first step into the psychedelic landscape. For Sandy and Brian, this was a trip into darkness and confusion. At least, that’s what I thought. What I didn’t know is that the safe, responsible and effective use of Brent’s plant medicines required just as much self-discipline as my own experiments in altered states. In fact, it takes more. Because it brings you face to face with what I believe to be the two most terrifying revelations: Before that night, I’d studied the long, rich history of indigenous cultures who used plant-based medicines to venture down the path of spiritual discovery. What’s the difference between an adolescent Native American, finding himself and his place in the tribe, through an experience with Peyote, and people whose trips never teach them much about themselves? In the “real world,” a tourist plans to visit a foreign land, and experience as much wonder as they can, and maybe capture some pictures and memories to share with their friends.
They pack up as many of the comforts of home as they can cram into a suitcase: toothpaste, shaving cream, comfortable clothes, and an audiobook of How to Win Friends and Influence People. Most of the time, their trip goes well. But occasionally, they encounter something they didn’t plan for, and it ruins their perfect vacation. Likewise, psychedelic tourism requires almost no preparation, and even less self-discipline. It’s like strapping yourself into a roller coaster seat and being swept away by the experience. It was an exercise in humility to admit that I was no more than a tourist of altered states. But today, I know that, for the unprepared mind, the psychedelic landscape is ripe with darkness and confusion for a good reason. I’m talking about what Carl Jung called your “shadow self.” The dark, sad, angry, envious, frightened or even hateful parts of ourselves which we’re too afraid to face. In my experience, most “bad trips” happen when we come face to face with this part of ourselves. But this has to happen before we can fully understand and embrace our Higher Self. Since I was a teen, my close friends have called me the most disciplined person they know. What I hesitate to tell them is that I secretly hate the word “discipline.” Maybe because the sound of the word hits my amygdala like the thought of choking down onion-flavored cough syrup, and drudges up mind-movies of prune-faced schoolmasters telling me that “if I don’t eat my meat, I can’t have any pudding.” Or, maybe it’s because I immediately associate discipline with being controlled, subdued or coerced by an authoritarian figure. Still, my friends would see me training for a marathon, memorizing a book of the Bible or the Upanishads, or going on a 40 day fast, and assume I had more self-control than the average person. The truth is, what they called discipline was no more than a very hard-earned streak of self-awareness. And I’m not talking about awareness of the self we all show to the world, or even the self we see in the mirror of our everyday consciousness. I’m talking about The Self we meet on the road to enlightenment. This Self is mentioned in all the ancient texts, from the Hindu Upanishads, to the Hermetic writings, to the New Testament, to the Dhammapada, to the Tao Te Ching, to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In my experience, self-discipline isn’t achieved by willpower. Rather, it’s the natural result of allowing our Higher Self to express itself through our actions. Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the elegance and beauty of this kind of self-discipline in his essay The Oversoul: “What we commonly call man, the eating, drinking, planting, counting man, does not, as we know him, represent himself, but misrepresents himself. Him we do not respect, but the soul, whose organ he is, would he let it appear through his action, would make our knees bend.” This “soul whose organ he is,” is what I’d call the Higher Self. Notice above where Emerson says, “would he let it appear through his action, would make our knees bend.” Again, I believe Emerson’s phrase “appearing through his action,” describes what we commonly call self-discipline. When we know our Higher Self, and let it appear through our actions, we receive all the power necessary to live out our highest ideals. In fact, Emerson finishes the paragraph by making a distinction between growth achieved through willpower, and growth achieved through the expression of our Higher Self, which he calls the soul. “All reform aims in someone particular to let the soul have its way through us.” This “engaging to obey,” speaks, not of conformity, but of a consistent renewal and expansion of our awareness. This renewal gives us the ability to explore and express our higher nature, rather than being ruled by our animal impulses. Most importantly, it gives us the courage and clarity to “export” more insights from the psychedelic world into our everyday experience. In other words, just as I used altered states to create music and prose, so we can all use them to recreate ourselves in the image of our Higher Self. But, the Higher Self isn’t the only “person” we meet on our trip into the psychedelic landscape. Since that night, I have come to believe that psychedelics are a surrogate for bringing about the revelation of our Higher Self. Such revelation allows us to know, and to express The Higher Self in our everyday actions. Since self-awareness makes this revelation possible, I believe that self-awareness is the “midwife” of the psychedelic experience. This, I believe, is the reform Emerson spoke of when he talked about letting the soul have its way through us. But our pursuit of, and our encounters with, Emerson’s Oversoul, also bring us face to face with the rejected parts of ourselves. I’ve often said that those who don’t know their own darkness will be ruled by it. But those who know it, will find themselves inside it. Looking back, I realize that Sandy’s “negative” experience was, most likely, unfolding that night to reveal something very valuable. Though I knew very little about her, I learned later that Sandy had very little control over her own feelings and choices. She was always worried about what people thought of her. Because of this, others could easily manipulate her with their guilt, anger or disappointment. The bugs under her skin were trying to tell her something important about her life. Think about it, we use the word “bug” when we talk about someone, or something, getting to us. When someone is irritating us, we say they’re getting under our skin. This common cultural metaphor had mapped itself onto a personal revelation, and it wasn’t just about bugs. It was about Sandy’s quest to become more spiritually and emotionally independent by freeing herself from the control of others. Had I known then what I know now, I might have been more than just a horrified bystander. Maybe I could have helped Brent lead them into some self-discovery. But I think the most important lesson is that there’s a difference between an experience and a revelation. An experience only creates a memory, but a revelation recreates us in the image of our Higher Self. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the ancient fable of the man named Narcissist. He was so in love with his reflection, he went to the river every day to gaze at it. One day, he became so enraptured by his reflection, he jumped into the river after it and drowned. But Narcissist didn’t die of self-love. His obsession was with a reflection—with the false self. Likewise, all of us, myself included, sometimes look at ourselves through the reflection of other people’s opinions, of our own criticisms or of the superficial expectations of our culture. I believe this story speaks of our biggest obstacle to knowing The Higher Self: the persistent awareness of what I call “the little self.” The little self, or “ego,” is a good servant. It helps us identify with our personal experience and to learn from it. But it is a poor master.
The Higher Self, as Emerson said, should we let it appear through our actions, would make our knees bend. So, why does it seem like our Higher Self doesn’t show up as often as we’d like? In my experience, it’s because too much of our consciousness is focused on our little self.
The little self always evaluates us, and others, based on things it can measure out in nice, neat little metrics: appearance, status, performance, social approval, etc. As we see through these masks, and past the mirror, we see a new Self. A Self who looks back at us, not to judge, to validate, or to condemn us, but to express its pure and perfect nature through us.
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