🍄 Something's off with how we talk about psychedelics
It doesn't have to be all microdosing, mental health, and big business. There's also room for a little bit of wild.
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A few years back I went to a conference about psychedelics. I was excited to connect with other psychonauts and see what this rising field looked like. I went to a few of the lectures given by academics from Johns Hopkins and NYU who do research and conduct clinical trials on psychedelics. They had all this data and charts showing how they were getting close to proving the overlap between how the brain reacts to psychedelics and mystical experiences. I sat there thinking, “No duh.”
I don’t need a scientific study to tell me about the overlap between psychedelics and mystical experiences. I have a lifetime of personal data and, well, let’s just say: The verdict is in.
I’m happy they’re doing that work and I realize the value of it. And I’m glad psychedelics are having a breakthrough moment. However, something feels off about how we’re talking about them. It feels like any discussion of these drugs has to fit into either an academic, business, or mental health framework.
Re: the mental health angle, psychedelics are increasingly viewed as “legitimate” because they can help alleviate anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc. It’s tough to argue with something that can serve as the cure for soldiers traumatized in war zones, addicts who can’t break free, panic attack sufferers, and others in pain. And of course that’s all great and let’s get ‘em the help they need.
But here’s the thing: We ALL need help. Even when we’re “well,” whatever that means, we can still get our minds straightened out – and tripping can help. You don’t need to be sick or troubled to benefit from psychedelics. Here’s Michael Pollan on “the betterment of well people”:
The value of such an experience is surely not limited to the mentally ill. There are rich implications here for what one psychedelic researcher calls “the betterment of well people.” Who doesn’t sometimes feel stuck in destructive habits of thought? Or couldn’t benefit from the mental reboot that a powerful experience of awe can deliver?
One of the lessons of the new research is that not just mental illness but garden-variety unhappiness may owe something to living under the harsh rule of an ego that, whatever its value, walls us off from our emotions, from other people and from nature. “For the moment,” wrote Aldous Huxley, describing his own psychedelic journey in 1954, “that interfering neurotic who, in waking hours, tries to run the show, was blessedly out of the way.”
I understand the “for therapeutic use” approach is the wise way to legalize, legitimize, and mainstream psychedelics. The people behind this movement are trying not to repeat the mistakes made by the Timothy Leary crew. They’re doing a good job making it palatable to soccer moms, politicians, and anyone else who bought into the war on drugs.
It just feels weird though. We don’t say “shrooms” anymore, we say psilocybin. It’s not hippies discussing it, it’s scientists and tech bros. It’s not coming from Paul Stamets, it’s coming from Peter Thiel. I’m worried about what happens when something so soulful and spiritual gets filtered through America’s “profit at all costs” healthcare system. Mystical experiences don’t mix well with predatory capitalism.
It’s also weird when people talk about microdosing as a productivity tool. (In Money magazine!?) I know “turn on, tune in, drop out" wasn’t the answer, but I’m not sure “microdose so you can be a better worker” is the solution either. If you’re taking shrooms and thinking “it’s time to go to work,” then my two cents is you’re doing them wrong. You should take ‘em and say, “Screw work!” And then go play.
Instead of microdosing, you can take the appropriate dose. You don’t have to toe dip, you can dive in. Lose your ego for a bit. Something to consider: A large dose of psychedelics is called a “heroic dose.” So when you’re microdosing, in a way, you’re being an anti-hero.
“But what if I have a bad trip?” Do it in the right setting with the right mindset and you’ll greatly reduce the chances of that. Whenever someone starts an “I had a bad trip” story, I interrupt. (Rude, I know, but I can’t resist.) “Let me guess: You were at a music festival and you were with a big group and you didn’t know all of them and then you got lost or it started raining or you were separated and it was really scary and…” Because it’s astounding how frequently “bad” trips involve a scenario like this. Often, people who had a bad trip didn’t take the wrong drugs, they just took them in the wrong environment. Dr. Ruby’s prescription: Take them in the right setting, with the right people, and with the right mindset and you’ll probably be fine. (Note: I’m no doctor. But that’s kinda the point.)
I just wanna argue for a little bit of wildness. Look at how ancient cultures use these tools and take inspiration from that. If people have been taking them a certain way for thousands of years, there’s probably a good reason for that. Psychedelics don’t have to be taken in a clinical setting while monitored by a therapist/trip-sitter. Sure, that’s a good idea for some. But you can also go for it outside of the system and the man. No blindfolds, no white walls, no pre-approved playlists, and no one holding your hand.
I’ve been running a lifelong experiment on hallucinating and can tell you these are also fine places to trip: At a friend’s apartment where you listen to Pet Sounds and then walk along the lakeshore of Chicago. In a national park in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York where you hike through the woods with bandmates. Traipsing through Fort Greene park with a couple of comedians from New Orleans. Going to an Airbnb in the Green Mountains of Vermont and hiking through the woods around the property until you discover an abandoned, rusted out van where you play for an hour and then lie in a field of grass as a rainstorm pours over you while you hold hands. Dog park! Dog park! Dog park! (Dog optional.) Wading into the fountain at Millennium Park. In bed with someone you love. Attempting to go to the Pink Floyd laser light show at the planetarium, failing, and deciding instead to go down to the basement and play music and then calling your mother and telling her how glorious the whole thing is and having her wish you a “smooth re-entry.” Throwing rocks into a river. Walking along the hoodoos at the edge of Long Island. Wading into the ocean on a beach in Costa Rica. On an island in Greece listening to a DJ as the sun sets. In a jungle in Tulum. In a “temple” (ok, a shack) atop a mountain in Peru. There’s a whole world out there of wonderful places to lose yourself. Trips ahoy!
But then again, you probably won’t read about any of that in Money magazine.
NYC: I’ll be performing a set on shrooms (!) as part of the “Substance” series I’m filming for a future special. It’ll be Wednesday, May 11 at the Good Eggs show at NY Comedy Club (East Village). $5 tickets with code “Scrambled” here. Let’s get wild.
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🎯 I think a lot about how little music videos made sense in the 80s/90s. An entire generation grew up watching bad art film shorts that made us use our imaginations to explain why some guy was in the jungle with a Rolls Royce and the gas pumps were also bowling pins or whatever.
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I comment that she writes about incels with an unusual degree of sympathy. Emba demurs slightly. “I’m not sympathetic to the incel understanding of women as objects that men deserve to have, or the idea that it’s a flaw in the world that men can’t have as many hot chicks as they want,” she says. “But there is a sense of pain in the incel movement which I am sympathetic to. People want to connect, they want to be loved, they want to be seen as valuable. And certain men find it very difficult to navigate the sexual and romantic world. There is a lot of sadness in this movement, and sometimes sadness can curdle into an awful radicalism.”
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And this is where the archeologist said something to Kurt Vonnegut that Vonnegut would later say changed the trajectory of his thinking…
“I don’t think being good at things is the point of doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.”
Here was how Vonnegut said the quote changed him…
*Kurt Vonnegut is typing now*
“…I went from a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because I enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could “Win” at them.”
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I’m coming to NOLA and Chicago soon to do some standup shows. Come or tell a friend!
Chicago - Lincoln Lodge - Thursday, June 16 at 9pm. Tix onsale now.
New Orleans - Comedy House NOLA - Friday, May 27. Two shows. 7pm and 9pm.
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