Psychedelics & Meditation
How meditation enhances the psychedelic experience, improves integration and lowers the downside risks
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past five years, it should be apparent that we are in the early stages of a psychedelic renaissance.
States in the US, such as Oregon, have legalised psilocybin mushrooms, and many others are following suit. Compelling evidence is forming around the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics on treatment-resistant depression (even after 12 months!) and generalised anxiety—especially for people fighting life-threatening ailments. Established authors such as Michael Pollan have written best sellers on the subject of psychedelics. Netflix’s most popular documentaries cover the topic. The rise of micro-dosing on LSD and psilocybin as a treatment for pandemic-related anxiety is well noted. And the number of renowned universities studying psychedelics has increased rapidly over the past few years.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Take a step back and consider where things are heading… Where will psychedelic research and usage be in five years? What about ten years?
I’m speculating a bit here, but it isn’t too hard to imagine psychedelics (and plant medicine more broadly) being intimately intertwined with all of our lives by the end of the decade. Especially given the potentially transformative and lasting mental, emotional and social health upsides, growing awareness of the value, dissipation of the existing stigma, and rapidly expanding accessibility.
And perhaps the timing couldn’t have been better, given the rise in depression, social anxiety and a general drop in psychological wellbeing that many around the world are experiencing—particularly amongst our younger generations.
Will psilocybin treatment programmes replace SSRI’s as the primary weapon in the war against rising depression and anxiety? Will LSD micro-dosing protocols become an essential part of the creators’ productivity stack? Will hero-dosage programmes become a go-to tool for dealing with psychological difficulties at the end of life? Will plant ceremonies become a ritualised activity at key transitional points in people’s lives? Will the recreational use of psychedelics lead to new sorts of social spaces?
I’m unsure how the story unfolds, but at this point in time, the future of psychedelics is looking reasonably bright.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL RISKS
So psychedelics provide us with many incredible opportunities. However, the outcomes aren’t always ‘positive’—both while the psychedelic is active and following the experience.
While the psychedelic is active, people tend to report four kinds of distressing effects:
Sensory (frightening illusions)
Somatic (Disturbing hyperawareness of physiological processes)
Personal Psychological (Troubling thoughts/feelings concerning one’s life)
Metaphysical (Troubling thoughts/feelings concerning the world)
In saying this, it is equally important to bear in mind that these distressing during-experience symptoms are reported to imbue meaning and be spiritually important for many people. As a 2016 study conducted by Theresa Carbonaro and colleagues found:
For 34 percent of participants, their most challenging trip on psilocybin was ranked among the top five most meaningful experiences of their life. And 31 percent said it was among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their life. Eighty-four percent of the respondents said they had benefitted from the challenging parts of their trip and 46 percent said they would repeat that session if they could, despite the challenges.
Under certain contextual and psychological conditions, the consumption of psychedelics can dial up the chances of enduring distressful and even psychotic-like symptoms arising.
There are cases where people have exhibited strong shifts in negative emotional tone, dissociation, paranoid ideation, fear-driven isolation, a need for excessive vigilance, delusions of grandeur, depressive mood swings, psychic instability, anxiety-inducing ego-dissolution and taking on harmful beliefs.
It is worth noting that experiencing significant psychotic-like symptoms isn’t the norm, and even if they are experienced, don’t tend to last more than 24hrs post the psychedelic being active.
But there are psychological risks… and to ignore these is just childish and dangerous.
HOW DO PSYCHEDELICS AFFECT US?
Many researchers and practitioners have put forward a wide array of theories for how psychedelics work. The spectrum of speculation is a fascinating phenomenon in itself.
However, for now, anyway, there does appear to be growing consensus around a particular explanation for what psychedelics are up to.
The consensus is best captured in a model called REBUS (Relax Beliefs Underlying Psychedelics), developed by Robin Carhart-Harris. At a high level, what the model proposes is that psychedelics shift the brain’s activity into a more entropic state, which:
Reduces the rigidity of our beliefs about who we are and how the world works.
Opens us up to new information that we were previous ignoring or filtering out.
Gives us a window of opportunity to revise or update our beliefs and narratives.
I’m not going to dive too deeply into the psychological and neurological mechanisms involved (I’ll share a more technical piece in the future), but in short, here is how you can think about what is going psychologically:
You experience yourself and the world through your beliefs and assumptions about what it is and how it works.
These beliefs function as lenses filtering subjectively irrelevant information and only presenting you with what is salient, meaningful and manageable.
These beliefs help us engage and navigate the world effectively. Certain beliefs, however, may keep us in harmful and limiting patterns that are rigid and hard to shift.
This is where psychedelics come in. By increasing the flexibility and malleability of our beliefs, psychedelics open us up to deep revisions, realisations and psychological change.
What’s really exciting about this model is that it makes sense within the context of the leading neurological frameworks for how the brain works, including hierarchical predictive coding, predictive processing and the role of something called the default mode network. What is also exciting is that at a neurochemical level, the REBUS model aligns neatly with leading theories on what the brain’s serotonin system is up to, especially the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor, and its role in creating Pivotal Mental States (PiMS).
By activating the serotonin 5-HT2A receptors, quietening the default mode network and relaxing the brain’s top-down predictive processing functions, psychedelics assist in creating pivotal mental states, which can loosely be summarised as containing the following features:
Elevated cortical plasticity
An enhanced rate of associative learning
A capacity to mediate psychological transformation
For more, here is an essay I wrote on mechanisms involved in psychological transformation.
So psychedelics don’t generate particular mental states.
They are, as the neuroscience researcher Ari Brouwer puts it, outcome agnostic yet, (outcome) pivotal, mediating states.
What they do is loosen the top-down processing that typically suppresses connection and association in the brain, creating the opportunity for the mediation of a wide range of psychological effects, new connections to be made, and real psychological transformation to occur.
The psychiatrist Stanislav Grof gets at this point nicely when he describes psychedelics as non-specific amplifiers of mental processes. I love that.
It positions psychedelics as a sort of active placebo. A plasticity enhancer. A technology that allows synaptic annealing to take place.
At a psychological level, the compounds are dialling up our receptiveness, sensitivity, susceptibility and suggestibility to whatever content (internal and external) appear during the experience.
METAPHORS FOR THE MIND ON PSYCHEDELICS
A better way to build some intuition for the work psychedelics are doing is through the use of metaphor. Here are three of my favourites:
1. SHAKING THE SNOW GLOBE
One helpful way to think about the psychedelic experience is like the shaking of a glass snowglobe.
Before you shake the globe, the snow is resting on the floor of the globe in a particular pattern. As you shake the globe, you disturb the snow, sending the flakes in all sorts of directions (in a sense, the shaking introduces entropy into the system). With time, the snowflakes settle down again, but in a new pattern to the one it was in previously.
Psychedelics are the shaking of the snowglobe, yet because they are outcome agnostic, they don’t have much influence on where exactly the snowflakes land. That is largely determined by a multitude of contextual factors—more on this just now.
2. POWDERING THE SNOW SLOPE
Okay, here is a second way to think of it. Imagine the brain as the slope of a mountain covered in soft snow and thoughts as sledges gliding down that mountain.
As one sledge after another goes down the mountain, a small number of main trails will gradually appear in the snow. And every time a new sledge goes down, it will be drawn to preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. With time it becomes more and more difficult to glide down the hill on any trail other than the ones that already exist.
Think of psychedelics as temporarily powdering over the pre-existing trails, therefore flattening the snow. With the deeply worn trails disappearing, a sledge can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and creating new pathways.
3. OPENING THE REDUCING VALVE
The author, Aldous Huxley, spoke of the brain as a reducing valve that acts as a constraint on our conscious awareness. The function of the valve is to filter out all but the most salient and useful information so that we can effectively navigate everyday life. Ofcourse, this filtering comes at the cost of limiting our experience to the very narrow lens of our genetic predispositions, conditioning and prior experiences.
According to Huxley, psychedelics inhibit the filtering mechanism, opening the reducing valve, and as a result, allow access to a much wider and richer array of information.
Huxley’s idea lines up nicely with the previously mentioned findings from neuroscience that have shown psychedelics to inhibit high-order (top-down) brain processes, deactivate the default mode network, and in the process, allow more bottom-up information to bubble to the surface of awareness.
CONTROLLING THE CONTEXT
Okay, so psychedelics don’t lead to positive or negative mental states on their own. Both while the psychedelic is active and following the psychedelic experience. What they do is amplify whatever is present, mediating psychological transformation in the process.
Psychedelics are the rocket fuel, not the navigation system.
So what determines the taste of the ‘fruits’ bore of a psychedelic experience?
In a word, context. But in the widest possible sense that the word can be used.
The ‘context’ here includes everything from the individual’s genetic predispositions and their early childhood conditioning through to their immediate state and sensory interpretations of the environment (social and physical) in which the psychedelic experience takes place.
Building an appreciation for the width and richness of context means that, although we may try, controlling the outcomes of a psychedelic experience is virtually impossible.
Researchers and practitioners often talk about controlling set and setting.
"Set" is the mental state a person brings to the experience, like thoughts, mood and expectations.
"Setting" is the physical and social environment the participant experiences while the psychedelic is active.
Should we engage with the evidence we have about how environmental features interact with our psychology? Absolutely.
But because of the complexity involved, the influence can only ever be probabilistic. We are simply lowering the downside risks, never eliminating them.
The extent to which we can lower the risks is also likely much lower than is currently assumed, especially outside of indigenous ceremony spaces that have been fine-tuning the context for thousands of years.
If you want to build some appreciation for the sort of complexity we are talking about here, I suggest reading Robert Sapolsky's book, Behave, as an intro. It is so easy to forget that perceptions and actions are the culmination of an impossibly large number of variables….
Describing a context that includes human beings as a closed and controlled system is ridiculous and almost laughable once you start thinking about it…
So that’s the first thing.
And then secondly, should we even be trying to eliminate the risk of the distressful experience?
As mentioned previously, a recent study found that 34% of people ranked their most challenging psychedelic trip among the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives, and 31% ranked it among the most spiritually significant experiences of their lives. Breakthroughs can sometimes be hard while we are experiencing them. Perhaps that’s a feature, not a bug…
By directing participants’ mindsets to a particular way of thinking and over-engineering the trip environment to constrain the spectrum of experience to what Western psychologists perceive as positive, are we limiting the potential fruit that an active psychedelic can produce?
On the other side, I also know individuals who have had incredibly rich, beautiful and blissful psychedelic experiences and yet subsequently dropped in depressive positions because of the comparatively heightened reference point they were now anchored to… Or because the vastness they touched felt impossible to communicate within the constraints for the physical world.
I don’t have strong ethical intuitions about what should be controlled and what should be left alone, but it feels like an important area of inquiry.
CULTIVATING NEGATIVE CAPABILITY
Let’s move with the assumption that set and setting have an influence on the post-trip outcomes associated with psychedelics experiences, but that influence is limited, and perhaps this sort of influence isn’t something we should be tinkering too much with in the first place…
Holding this assumption, the question I have been asking myself is this:
Are there other ways to mitigate the downside risks and dial up the chances that a participant has a healthy post-trip integration, no matter what the valence of their trip experience was like?
As opposed to controlling the mental patterns or physical context, a better approach may be to cultivate what the poet, John Keats, called ‘Negative Capability’ — a capacity to exist amid uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without reaching for absolutes (whether scientific or spiritual).
For most of us, certainty is like a drug we are desperately addicted to. We hold onto it for dear life, and when we lose it, we begin acting like addicts under cold turkey.
As discussed earlier, a large part of what psychedelics are up to is creating uncertainty at the level of the mind. They disrupt our models of the world by creating new connections, associations and making us receptive to information we were previously ignoring or disconfirming. This can be unsettling or even terrifying for some.
Katherine Maclean describes the implications of psychedelics neatly when she said:
"A high-dose psychedelic experience is death practice. You're losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and that process can feel like dying."
LEARNING TO DANCE WITH UNCERTAINTY
My view (and it is largely a hunch at this point) is that a lot of the less desirable post-experience outcomes associated with psychedelics arise as a result of a desperate need for the mind to move away from the unfamiliar state of uncertainty and towards crystalised absolute beliefs that give us the feeling of certainty, order, predictability and control.
As a result, we grasp onto new beliefs too quickly, which can lead to immediate relief, but with time confusion inevitably arises, and in rare situations delusion, paranoia and excessive vigilance too.
What we ideally want is a mind that is supple, flexible and not overly attached to particular models of themselves or the world. A mind that can move away from beliefs and adapt to new information as it arises. A mind that is comfortable to move in a state of uncertainty.
MEDITATION FOR INTEGRATION
There are many different integration tools and skills available to improve the chances that participants land their ‘planes' gently after a psychedelic experience (I’ll cover the full range of tools in a future essay).
But… in my view, none of them come close to meditation.
Not only does meditation bring one into a calmer, more equanimous state of body and mind, but at its core, meditation is about capably being in complete and utter uncertainty. And not just capable, but thriving in that space of unknowing—enjoying the richness of the complex, ever-changing contents of experience, without any need to grasp for concepts or make sense of varying sensations that are arising and moving through.
BACK TO PSYCHEDELICS
Okay, let me try to tie things together here.
As mentioned, our best biological models suggest that what psychedelics are up to is the relaxing of our rigid, structured beliefs and an opening to new connections, associations and sensory information. The brain does this by temporarily moving into a more entropic, informationally disordered state through the activation of serotonin 5-HT2A receptors and the quietening of the brain’s default mode network.
In this sense, psychedelics are the shaking of the snowglobe. The powdering of the snow paths. The opening of the reducing valve.
This process can be incredibly insightful and transformative. Problems arise, however, when we don’t feel comfortable in the unfamiliar openness that psychedelics generate. As result, we reach for certainty. For beliefs or narratives that help explain the situation we are in so that our minds can move back into a familiar state of top-down order, knowing, prediction and control.
Negative capability or the capacity to remain within a state of uncertainty is a great way to mitigate the risks of collapsing too quickly into misaligned, limited and harmful beliefs or self-narratives. And the meditative state appears to be our best bet for cultivating this capacity for uncertainty.
As a result, participants who have a strong meditative practice have much more space to integrate properly, hold the mind more lightly and let go of the thought patterns, concepts and belief structures that aren’t in alignment or service. Their familiarity with an open, expansive and more uncertain state of mind means they are better able to communicate from that space as well.
NEUROLOGICAL SIMILARITIES BETWEEN MEDITATION & PSYCHEDELICS
What is also interesting is that deep states of meditation are surprisingly similar to psychedelically-altered states of mind. Not just subjectively, but at a neurological level too. Michael Pollan summarises the overlaps nicely in an interview with Dr Mark Hyman.
GETTING INTO THE MEDITATIVE STATE
So meditation is important for integration, but how do we cultivate the meditative state and bring it into everyday life?
Don’t do, just be. Okay… but how?
Trying to meditate is a bit like trying to control the functioning of your kidneys.
There are indirect things you can do to enable your kidneys to work properly (exercise, good sleep, don’t drink too much, etc.), but ultimately you have very little immediate top-down control over how they work.
Meditation is similar.
We can only cultivate the meditative state indirectly (atleast initially anyway). Fortunately, there is a range of practices that appear to be helpful in supporting cultivation.
Here are three tools I have found helpful:
Negative Inquiry - Questioning one’s own beliefs with sincerity, curiosity and genuine scepticism. The point isn’t to reach some other conclusion but to see the limitations of the conceptual mind and the harm we cause by tying ourselves to particular thought patterns.
In Sanskript, this process of negation is often referred to as Neti, Neti, loosely translated as ‘Not this, not that’.
Pointing Out - Working with teachers and peers who are able to point out our attachments, desires, delusions and blindspots, loosening our worldly chains and slowly moving us into a meditative state of being.
Sitting - Sitting with stillness in silence, we come to know the nature of mind and all that arises as it. With time we can move beyond identifying with the limiting contents of mind and into a state of open and expansive awareness.
Negative inquiry and pointing out exercises are incredible effective activities for becoming more capable and comfortable with uncertainty, but the real shifts into meditation come from sitting.
BUILDING A SITTING PRACTICE
The difficulty is that the richness of sitting is more of a nourishment than a pleasure. It’s broccoli, not cheesecake. Good for you, but not immediately pleasurable.
Without immediate pleasurable gains, it can feel difficult and effortful to direct ourselves towards the activity, especially over a long enough period of time for habituation to start kicking in.
Neurologically speaking, sitting without any expected gain, any sense of progress, or outward signals of growth isn’t going to get your dopaminergic reward system firing, which is crucial for focused shifts in behaviour and forming habits.
One way to get around this problem is by creating a behavioural scaffolding that works with the psychological mechanisms that contribute towards the development of sustained behaviour change.
100 DAYS OF SITTING
In working with these psychological mechanisms, I have created a public challenge called 100 Days of Sitting, which incorporates a range of behavioural tools and techniques to improve the chances of building and sustaining a sitting practice.
The goal is to sit without disturbance for a minimum of 15 minutes for 100 Days and simply share that you sat.
If you are interested in taking part in the challenge, you can join the support group by clicking on the link below.
On the day of writing this, we have around 31 participants involved, all moving at their own pace and sharing at a level that is comfortable for them.