From Ayahuasca to Psilocybin, Why Bad Trips Are a Good Thing

Psychedelics are experiencing a resurgence. What can we learn from bad trips? 

The mushroom covers a length from my middle finger to the edge of my palm. At eight grams it is a beautiful specimen. Carefully I slice it in half, handing one four-gram chunk to my friend, Brandon. We light a joint, wolf down our halves quickly, chasing it with smoke and water. It’s 10:45 pm.

At 11:15 we’re walking down Somerset St toward a Halloween party. Passing Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Brandon turns to me: “I need to go in there.” I tell him we can’t; my college job is in the emergency room monitoring suicidal patients. I’m not ready to accept that we’re two of them.

But he’s not feeling social. He heads to his dorm while I hit up the party. Two hours later I’m back in my apartment, realizing that my trip has barely begun. Seeking some semblance of reality, I walk into my roommate’s room, flip on his Sega Genesis, and start playing Crash Bandicoot. I can’t make it past the first stage: I keep dying, and being reborn. And dying. And reborn.

Then it all comes crashing down.

In the bathroom I recall a concept, like my name. I envision a small circuit board operator inside my head unplugging that line. She keeps ripping wires any time I think of a word. Then I get to ‘breathe.’ No, my mind yells, don’t forget that one! I rush into my bedroom, dive under the covers. The heating system is broken; it’s forty degrees outside. I forget my name around two am. At six, I remember, and pass out.

When I wake up three hours later, I vow to never eat another mushroom.

The following Friday, I eat two grams by myself, head to Voorhees Mall, sit on the grass for hours, meditate and think. I have the trip of my life.

A bad trip often keeps people away from psychedelics, such as the psilocybin mushrooms we ingested that evening. As it turns out, four grams is the amount that pushes people over the edge, a new study shows. Since that night I’ve never ingested that much, and have no plans to. But as the research also states, a bad trip can be a very good thing.

Eighty-four percent of people who have experienced bad psilocybin trips report that they benefited from it. As someone who has experimented with a wide range of psychedelics, I’ve never enjoyed bad trips when they’re happening, but I’ve always learned from them. There is nothing mystical about these plants. You’re merely bringing to the surface latent issues already simmering around the edges. Where you’re at is where you’re going to end up during the trip.

And such trips will only increase as psychedelics continue to boom. This week’s New Yorker features an in-depth article on ayahuasca, showing just how far a South American DMT-laden tea has come in the last few decades in American consciousness. Ariel Levy writes,

If cocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale. It is a time characterized by wellness cravings, when many Americans are eager for things like mindfulness, detoxification, and organic produce, and we are willing to suffer for our soulfulness.

My three ayahuasca experiences have been extraordinarily peaceful, giddy even, though twice someone went down hard, which does not make for pleasant viewing. Levy concludes with her first journey, which sounds like nothing I’d want to partake in. (I’d say the shaman was unable to hold the ceremony together—a case of a ‘yogahuasca’ in charge.)

Levy’s strongest reporting is on the neurological impact of ayahuasca, which translates similarly across the psychedelic sphere. Evidence of these substances curbing alcoholism and other addictions and helping people deal with end-of-life care as well as psychological diseases such as depression and anxiety make this an exciting and potent area of research. Bad trips often occur due to the quieting of our brain’s daydreaming center, of which Levy writes,

Having studied fMRIs and EEGs of subjects on ayahuasca, [researcher Draulio de] Araujo thinks that the brain’s “default-mode network”—the system that burbles with thought, mulling the past and the future, while your mind isn’t focused on a task—is temporarily relieved of its duties. Meanwhile, the thalamus, which is involved in awareness, is activated. The change in the brain, he notes, is similar to the one that results from years of meditation.

This shutting down is not everyone’s cup of tea. In a hilarious skit, Louis CK talks about that invisible ‘forever empty’ inside all of us. Instead of coming to terms with this inherent loneliness regarding the inevitable transiency of life, we mindlessly flick through social media streams any time a potential moment of boredom arises. It’s not only memory that’s been outsourced to our phones; imagination too is deadened by our insistent business.

This, I would venture, is when a ‘bad trip’ occurs, when you’re reminded of your fleeting insignificance and unavoidable end to this life. Such a revelation is terrifying to a mind insistent that the world be otherwise. Countless gods and afterlives have been dreamt up to rage against this machine we call nature. Funny that they too are the product of an overactive imagination we struggle to suppress by staying ‘connected’ every moment of every day.

But there is much beauty to be gained during a psychedelic ritual precisely because you’re thrust into the present moment and whatever is going on in your thoughts. This is why I returned seven days after the worst trip of my life, to remind myself that it’s not the substance but my mind—the emotional and psychological processing power of my brain—that needed perspective. And that, I’m guessing, is why 84 percent of respondents claim bad trips are beneficial.

The philosopher Alan Watts noticed that the God of the West is a very stern and angry fellow while the gods of the East are always laughing and dancing. All these divinities are products of our imagination; we only suffer when pretending they actually exist. Their symbolism is more telling anyway: live in fear and dread or ride along the cosmic ocean to see what waves you catch. That decision is up to each of us, and it makes me look forward to whatever trip comes next. 


Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.