This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Borders are closed and planes are grounded, meaning you can’t travel abroad. So why not—you ponder, as you eye a ziplock baggie of mushroom dust leftover from summer, or the four hits of blotter you keep in a cheap matryoshka doll you bought at the International Pavilion at the Ex—travel inside, exploring crags and crannies of your own consciousness, surveying the vast, ever-shifting metaphysical landscapes that reveal themselves, as your ego dissolves and you float, freely, through a hallucinatory frolic, traversing what the late psychedelic researcher Dr. Sidney Cohen called “the beyond within”?
On the plus side: dosing seems like a good way to shave six or eight or 12 hours off the self-quarantine. Taking acid, especially, is a bit of commitment. It’s sometimes said that a proper trip takes three days: one to prep (especially if you follow more severe protocols around fasting beforehand), one for the trip itself, and one to come down and re-acclimatize to the rigors of reality, which are themselves these days all totally out of whack. Using the time alone to experiment with psychedelics and explore your own interiority seems like a handy idea during this bizarre period of consensual social lockdown.
But is it?
First off: I’m not recommending doing drugs, which may or may not be illegal where you are reading this from. Secondly: I have a nagging feeling of late that the psychedelic experience has itself become somewhat debased, or even gentrified. There are a few contributing factors here, like the popular ascent of microdosing (taking small, “sub-perceptual” doses of psilocybin mushrooms or LSD as an ad hoc antidepressant or performance enhancer), and the ubiquity of “I Went To My Great-Aunt Bernadette’s Wake…On Acid”-style reportage, in which psychedelics are harnessed as kind of phase shifter to render the trivial strange, or the openly weird even weirder. (VICE may have cornered the market on this writing pre-2015.)
The normalization of psychedelic usage, both by eager hobbyists and Silicon Valley coders chasing a low-dose amphetamine effect so they can stay spry during a 24-hour marathon coding an app en route to an IPO, has diminished something of the profundity of the high-dose psychedelic experience. You know: the earnest, embarrassing kind that has been proven to approximate mystical epiphanies, and which is of a wholly other category than just “taking acid” and going to a laser tag maze or a nauseatingly-lit Wendy’s. That’s the stripe of psychedelic odyssey that interests me, both for the purposes of this article, and just in general. And it’s one which has, historically, been shaped by various contingencies that one would do well to consider before setting off on an hours-long, mind-bending sojourn in the midst of a global pandemic.
Before the kicks and cults era of the San Francisco sound, hippie hairdos, and Timothy Leary-styled evangelism that marked 1960s psychedelic explosion, mind-expansion was serious business. An elite, halfway-underground network of scientists, sages, eccentrics, and psychedelic cognoscenti—including Brave New World author Aldous Huxley and Saskatchewan-based psychiatrist Humphry Osmond—had started experimenting with psychedelics including mescaline and LSD in the mid-1950s, believing the drugs to be powerful conduits to transcendental, other-worldly experiences. As Osmond wrote in a letter to Huxley, minting a new word in the process:
To fathom hell or soar angelic,
Just take a pinch of psychedelic
Where “experimenting with drugs” eventually became a high-minded way of saying “doing drugs,” these early psychedelic trials more or less resembled actual experiments. A key control here was the notion of “set and setting.” The idea emerged when early researchers, including Osmond, realized that the antiseptic, clinical, white-on-white institutional upholstery of research hospitals may have been negatively affecting psychedelic experiences. Psychedelics were originally termed “psychotomimetics,” for their supposed ability to mimic states of psychosis. As such, early volunteers for research trials were effectively treated in a manner befitting the mentally ill circa the mid-20th century, i.e., not exactly conducive to good vibes.
Al Hubbard—an elusive and outlandishly odd figure in this history, who is variously known as “Captain Trips” and “The Johnny Appleseed of LSD,” who owned his own island and believed himself to be touched by angels, and who, most importantly, had a direct source to LSD produced by Sandoz Labs in Switzerland, where the drug was first devised—went a long way toward attempting to rectify these clinical, unfriendly environs. Hubbard introduced comforting music and religious imagery to trip sessions. Hubbard’s insight was that cultivating comfortable environments would result in drastic, and ideally positive, shifts in the psychedelic experience itself.
The idea was codified in 1964’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, co-authored by Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert. “The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting,” they write, straight off the top. “Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including his personality structure and his mood at the time. Setting is physical—the weather, the room’s atmosphere; social—feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural—prevailing views as to what is real.” (Leary would go on to hypothesize that the contours of the psychedelic experience itself could be “programmed” through control of set and setting, the sort of idea that rides the fence between wildly ambitious and totally loony in a way that defines a lot of Leary’s work in the field.)
This is, perhaps, something any recreational drug user probably takes for granted. When people talk about “bummers” and “bad trips,” they’re often talking about the manner in which their experience has been soured by variables of set and setting. But it is, then and now, arguably as essential to the character of a given trip as the psychoactive catalysts themselves.
The constituent element of “set and setting” that I tend to find the most interesting is that cultural milieu that Leary and co. reference in their manual. Some hypothesize that, during the cultural explosion of psychedelics in the 1960s, sensational stories about teens ripped to the lids on acid bouncing out of windows had the effect of multiplying bad trips. It’s something psychedelic researchers call “expectation”: the idea that a user can be primed (though never totally programmed) to expect a certain reaction to a drug. When all the media hubbub about LSD focuses on people losing their minds and suffering schizophrenic breaks, then expectations are attuned accordingly.
As researcher Ido Hartogsohn put it in a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, “psychedelics are deeply cultural drugs that interact intimately with the collective set and setting conditions of the society.” “Setting” is not just a matter of having a comfortable sofa adorned with a bricolage of fluffy pillows, covering your flatscreen with paisley shawl, and lighting some candles. It can also be extended to the broader context in which the psychedelic experience is produced.
Which plops us right back in the right now: social distancing, isolation, self-quarantine, the lingering threat of a global respiratory pandemic that, we’re assured, will only get worse before it gets better. While psychedelics have shown promising results in clinical research settings as tools for easing—or, indeed, eliminating—otherwise intractable anxieties, they can also have a more acute effect of amplifying those anxieties. Imagine peaking and breaking through the pale of reason, and then confronting the reality of a calamitous and very real global health crisis, and the effects it will have in reshaping pretty much any conceivable aspect of our world. Such nagging practicalities may strike seasoned recreational users as mere nuisances, or even the sort of gauntlet through which the psychonaut must travail en route to enlightenment. But they strike me, as someone with an almost unslakable interest in the history and implications of psychedelic research, as laying the groundwork for big-time bummer trips.
One may reasonably argue that, well, psychedelics are perhaps especially conducive to something like self-isolation: a serene setting, a cozy mindset. The precise character of that isolation, however, is bound to shift somewhat when it’s not a matter of preference, but government edict. Self-isolation trip reports from Reddit’s lively LSD community have, in the past week, produced anecdotal evidence of crummy trips, to out-and-out “nightmarish” trips, to memes about families blasting off together, to hyperbolic remarks like, “There is literally no better time than now to eat a whole friggin sheet.” Social distancing, self-quarantining, and all these necessary measures have a way of making us all feel a bit like prisoners, or patients bound up within comfortably padded cells. It’s that looming, ambient feeling of being deprived, of being trapped, that’s likely to contribute to a setting utterly unfriendly to a safe, comfortable psychedelic sojourn into that great beyond within. It may well be a matter of personal preference, or individual outlook (i.e. “set”), but I sort of doubt anyone wants to have to sit down and write, “I Spiraled Into Pondering the Global Ramifications of the Coronavirus Pandemic…On Acid!” Not even anyone at VICE.
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