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Naturally High: My Quest to Experience Different Realms Without Psychedelic Drugs

For the past year, I've set out to find natural ways of feeling trippy shit through alternative experiences.

Photo of the author with the dreamachine

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

As a committed pothead, I've recently noticed that the wondrous, mystical wavelengths, which would arise in my brain like bubbles in a carbonated drink, have been increasingly harder to access. I suppose that's what happens when your tolerance for ganj goes up and that blast of dopamine and cannabinoid receptors are like, "Yeah, nah, we get it, not much else we can do here." Rather than see it as a negative, I've decided to use this shift in body chemistry as a challenge to experience other realms …completely sober. For the past year, I've actively set out to find natural ways of feeling trippy shit through alternative experiences. I present to you my findings.


The dreamachine
Last July, I attended an adult science fair the Museum of Vancouver. Among the wear-your-weight-in-water jacket and the mysterious green ray recreation experiment was a replica of Brion Gysin's dreamachine, which was built by my friend Katie Webster. Back when he created the original in 1961, Gysin sold it as "the first art object to be seen with the eyes closed." This contraption is basically a large lampshade with slots cut out, lit by a dangling lightbulb which twirls around on a record player.

To experience its powers, I was instructed to close my eyes directly in front of the light bulb and chill out for a bit while Brian Eno jams droned spookily in the background. The second my eyes shut, I saw a kaleidoscope of colorful patterns and shapes, morphing and melting into the blank space behind my eyelids. It was like my mind was cozily being tucked into a quilt dipped in acid, then taken for a ride on a merry-go-round set at lightning speed. These visions moved in such a quick pace, they instantly filled what felt like the entirety of my brain. It was unquestionable that I was seeing visions, just nothing concrete, like a spirit bear or an oasis. Instead, it was all impossible to distinguishing shapes and colors, spinning in such a rapid succession that if forced me to stand very still and take it all in. It was entirely a visual experience—I could still hear the music and people talking in the background, though for a brief moment, time stood still.


Unfortunately, there was a line of people waiting to experience this stroboscopic mind trip, so I couldn't linger for too long, though I did sneak back a few more times. (If you want to learn more about the dreamachine, the National Film Board did a whole documentary on it called Flicker. The trailer shows Iggy Pop dancing around one with his arms flailing.)

My takeaway: Though the dreamachine is a visual stimulation overload of an experience, it didn't feel particularly spiritual. More like a novel, momentary, and holistic acid trip. Don't do it if you're prone to seizures.

A sensory deprivation tank. Photo via Flickr user Clarence Risher

Sensory Deprivation Tank
I recently did my first float in Vancouver, where I lay in a mini submarine-like tank full of saline water for 90 minutes. Since I meditate daily, I was thrilled to experience another way of reaching a different (sober) wavelength.

When I first got into the tank, I had a hard time fully relaxing, since my neck felt kinked and unsupported. After a few unsuccessful attempts with a pool noodle under my neck, I tilted my head back and relaxed into a comfortable position. I alternated between stretching my arms out over my head and leaving them to float by my side.

The tank was so dark I couldn't see my hand in front of my face and it felt like meditating with my eyes open. I could feel my breath and clearly hear my heartbeat. My thoughts were undoubtedly beginning to slow down, without much effort on my part. It was dream-like.


The consistency of the saline water reminded me a bit of those nuru massage porn videos; it felt nice (and somewhat arousing) to slosh it around my body. Even though the tank is said to be at body temperature, I felt chilly. Yet when I felt my boobs, my nips weren't erect, which probably just means I'm a cold-blooded bitch. I dunno.

Although an hour and a half seems like an exorbitantly long time to spend alone, deprived of most of your senses, it didn't feel boring or trying. Rather it was serene and otherworldly. It felt somewhere between napping with my eyes open, meditating with my eyes open, and floating in the Dead Sea. Unfortunately, I didn't experience any visions as I'd hoped.

My takeaway: I left the tank certainly feeling like I'd been incubated, but also severely dehydrated. Despite not being a drinker, it was the closest experience I'd had to being hungover since my teens. However, it was unlike anything else I'd ever done and I've been told that each session is completely different. I'll definitely give it another go.

Centre of a shamanic journeying circle. Photo via Flickr user ECP

Shamanic Journeying Circle
At the suggestion of my naturopath, I attended a monthly shamanic journeying circle at a Toronto community centre at the end of December. I was told these ceremonies were like the bunny hill of the shamanic world, which has intrigued me for some time.

When I arrived, a lovely lady with gray hair and good vibes smudged me as I gathered with a smorgasbord of about 40 other people in a circle. I was told to bring a mat, blanket, and water, along with a pen and paper to document my experience. Before getting started, Jeannette, the shaman, an older, bright-eyed white woman who looks like your elderly bohemian aunt, talked about the upper and lower realm. If you wanted to visit the lower realm, you had to visualize a place that exists low to the earth, like a cave or ravine; if you preferred to go to the upper realm, you were to imagine a place high up, like a mountain or rainbow. Which realm you choose was a matter of preference, though she warned that if you were brought up with negative associations of hell, the lower realm probably wasn't a good idea. Once the spot was chosen, we were instructed to wait for our spirit guide with a specific question. Jeannette advised those new to journeying to ask the generic question: What message do you have for me tonight? We were to have two rounds of journeying, guided by drumming, and broken up by a round of discussion.

The lights were dimmed and most of the room lay on mats, while others sat in chairs. Jeannette started drumming on one of those flat, circular hand drums, and we were told to relax. During the first round, I felt nothing. I chose to journey to the lower realm, and visualized my favorite beach in Vancouver. I thought I had a brief vision of an eagle, but it wasn't enough to convince me any of it was legit. When it ended, people in the room started sharing their journeys, and I was baffled and frustrated to hear about intense, powerful visions and messages mostly everyone had experienced.

When I mentioned my frustration, the woman next to me just told me to focus on what was popping into my head, rather than what wasn't. For the second round, I chose to visit the upper realm, and visualized a mountain I've climbed on the Sunshine Coast. I asked the question again and this time, had a vision of me, tucked under an eagle's wing, soaring through the sky. Then I clearly heard: "Be who you are. Think about you." It was overwhelmingly emotional and profound. When I made my way home that night, I focused on the brightness of the moon and started to cry.

My takeaway: I totally found my jam, my version of church. It helped me believe in the possibility of different realms and finding guidance within myself. I plan on attending these circles regularly.

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