Down the Rabbit Hole: A Psychedelic Reading List

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“On psychedelics,” Dr. John Halpern, head of the Laboratory for Integrative Psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, told The New York Times Magazine, “you have an experience in which you feel there is something you are a part of, something else is out there that’s bigger than you, that there is a dazzling unity you belong to, that love is possible and all these realizations are imbued with deep meaning. I’m telling you that you’re not going to forget that six months from now.” That rings true to me.

For the record, I’m not encouraging anyone to take psychedelics. Powerful substances such as LSD, D.M.T., and psilocybin are not for everyone, and they are illegal. That said, these substances behave in the body very different than opioids, alcohol, and cocaine, and they offer what many people view as the possibility for enlightenment, for constructive personal revelations, and insight into the cosmos. The stories collected here offer insight into this idea.

Not long ago, residents of affluent Western countries began traveling to the jungles of South America to have profound psychedelic experiences with the hallucinogen ayahuasca. And workers in Silicon Valley started taking small doses of psilocybin and LSD, called microdoses, to enhance their work and creativity in tech. Tripping got trendy. It also received more scientific attention. As Lauren Slater wrote in her New York Times piece, a new generation of researchers are studying the therapeutic effects of psychedelic substances and their potential for treating everything from depression, alcoholism, and PTSD, to confronting our own mortality. These researchers have differentiated themselves from the questionable, Timothy Leary-style drug studies of the ’60s. It’s exciting to live in a time when scientists are taking a serious, objective look at the way psychedelics work on not only the human body, but the human experience. After the legalization of cannabis in many US states, activists are now working to legalize psilocybin mushrooms. Like all outlawed psychoactive substances, psychedelics come with a lot of cultural baggage. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan stated that “anyone that would engage or indulge in [LSD] is just a plain fool.”

For those who haven’t tripped and want to understand the experience, or those who want to relive past trips without having to fit new six-to-ten-hour journeys into their adult work and parenting schedules, this reading list is for you. For those who prefer to never to ingest psychedelic substances, these stories will take that trip so you don’t have to. It’s nice to travel into another dimension from the comfort of your own couch, especially now that COVID-19 keeps most of us indoors at home. Anyway, shelter-in-place isn’t the best time to trip. Psychedelics are better suited to nature, if not a camping trip then at least a city park. Apartments are too small. They smother the cosmic consciousness we’re trying to expand. Also, things get weird in familiar environments, especially familiar environments where family portraits hang above piles of dirty laundry that need washing. (Hi Mom, my face is melting!) Maybe the best trip now is one others have already taken. Either way, safe travels my friends. See you on the other side.

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The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale” (Ariel Levy, The New Yorker, September 5, 2016)

The ancient South American hallucinogen ayahuasca has become America’s psychedelic drug du jour, with everyone from Baby Boomers and Millennials to the Silicon Valley set seeking its potent revelations about harmony and interspecies unity. To hear the plants speak, all you need is money and some strength of mind.

One at a time, we went into the front room to be smudged with sage on the wrestling mats by a woman in her sixties with the silver hair and beatific smile of a Latina Mrs. Claus. When she finished waving her smoking sage at me and said, “I hope you have a beautiful journey,” I was so moved by her radiant good will that I nearly burst into tears.

Once we were all smudged and back in our circle, Little Owl dimmed the lights. “You are the real shaman,” she said. “I am just your servant.”

When it was my turn to drink the little Dixie cup of muck she presented, I was stunned that divine consciousness—or really anything—could smell quite so foul: as if it had already been vomited up, by someone who’d been on a steady dieta of tar, bile, and fermented wood pulp. But I forced it down, and I was stoked. I was going to visit the swampland of my soul, make peace with death, and become one with the universe.

Tourists of Consciousness” (Jeff Warren, Maisonneuve, April 29, 2011)

Before The New Yorker spotted ayahuasca as a subject, the Canadian quarterly Maisonneuve covered the increasing popularity of hallucinogen tourisism. Jeff Warren’s reporting makes a fascinating companion to Ariel Levy’s above.

As if on cue, the Estonian psychologist, Alar, vomited into his bucket, setting off a domino effect of throaty purges around the room. Susan began humping the air. The Mountie groaned and raised his arm, as if to ward off an assailant. Someone else started barking. The Finnish professor—also in his sixties—came spinning in from the sidelines, hair shocked upwards in an Elvis-style pompadour, and pranced around Susan’s undulating body.

It was all too much. I struggled to my feet, teetered, and fell sideways over a chair. On my hands and knees I managed to crawl to the bathroom, where I was noisily ill. I spent the next two hours slumped next to the toilet, disappointed by my lack of visions, but also giggling at the whole bizarre circus. Behavioural reality, at least, was beginning to shift.

How Psychedelic Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death” (Lauren Slater, The New York Times Magazine, April 20, 2012)

Researchers are exploring whether certain drugs can help patients cope with fear of death. Pam Sakuda, who was given six to 14 months to live, was administered psilocybin — an active component of magic mushrooms.

Norbert Litzingerremembers picking up his wife from the medical center after her first session and seeing that this deeply distressed woman was now “glowing from the inside out.” Before Pam Sakuda died, she described her psilocybin experience on video: “I felt this lump of emotions welling up . . . almost like an entity,” Sakuda said, as she spoke straight into the camera. “I started to cry. . . . Everything was concentrated and came welling up and then . . . it started to dissipate, and I started to look at it differently. . . . I began to realize that all of this negative fear and guilt was such a hindrance . . . to making the most of and enjoying the healthy time that I’m having.” Sakuda went on to explain that, under the influence of the psilocybin, she came to a very visceral understanding that there was a present, a now, and that it was hers to have.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop by the Office” (Emma Hogan, 1843, August 31, 2017)

Emma Hogan reports that in Silicon Valley, microdosing LSD is the new “body-hacking” tool everyone from engineers to CEOs are using to boost productivity and creativity. Interestingly, while apparently everyone is doing it, users are reluctant to have their real names appear in print.

San Francisco appears to be at the epicentre of the new trend, just as it was during the original craze five decades ago. Tim Ferriss, an angel investor and author, claimed in 2015 in an interview with CNN that “the billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.” Few billionaires are as open about their usage as Ferriss suggests. Steve Jobs was an exception: he spoke frequently about how “taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life”. In Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, the Apple CEO is quoted as joking that Microsoft would be a more original company if Bill Gates, its founder, had experienced psychedelics.

As Silicon Valley is a place full of people whose most fervent desire is to be Steve Jobs, individuals are gradually opening up about their usage – or talking about trying LSD for the first time. According to Chris Kantrowitz, the CEO of Gobbler, a cloud-storage company, and the head of a new fund investing in psychedelic research, people were refusing to talk about psychedelics as recently as three years ago. “It was very hush hush, even if they did it.” Now, in some circles, it seems hard to find someone who has never tried it.

The Trip Treatment” (Michael Pollan, The New Yorker, February 2, 2015)

Research into psychedelics has been demonized and shut down for decades. But recent psilocybin trials from Johns Hopkins and New York University are helping researchers reconsider the therapeutic potential of the drugs.

The Trippy Science of Psychedelic Studies” (Elitsa Dermendzhiyska, Elemental, August 22, 2019)

Psychedelic substances show great promise treating everything from cancer to depression, anxiety to alcoholism. To help understand this burgeoning field of inquiry, one writer participates in a study. Tripping taught her as much about the promises as the dangers of medical psychedelics.

The brain on psychedelics is not only susceptible to cues, but it also exaggerates their meanings. And here’s the problem with that: We can debate what’s real and what is an illusion, but we can’t ignore the power of the drugs, or the power of the people who administer them to us, and we can’t ignore our own vulnerability to both. This is what chills me.

The Plot to Turn On the World: The Leary/Ginsberg Acid Conspiracy” (Steve Silberman, PLoS/Maps.org, April 21, 2011)

As the public faces of the psychedelic revolution, Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg made a dynamic duo. The charming, boyish, Irish Harvard professor and the ecstatic, boldly gay, bearded Jersey bard became the de facto gurus of the movement they’d helped create — father figures for a generation of lysergic pilgrims who temporarily jettisoned their own fathers in their quest for renewable revelation. (Note that this piece, originally published at PLoS, is no longer available there. Some digging discovered it online at maps.org.)

A Psychedelic Murder Story” (John Paul Rathbone, Financial Times, June 19, 2015)

Ayahuasca tea has long played a religious role in Brazil, but did it also contribute to the brutal death of a celebrated Brazilian artist? A dark twist on the question for enlightenment.

There have been many other reports of mental and physical healing following ayahuasca ceremonies, as well as occasional stories of delusion, cultism and worse. Early last year, Henry Miller, a 19-year-old Briton, died after apparently taking part in a shamanic ayahuasca ritual in Colombia — a terrible accident which played in the British press as a cautionary tale of a gap-year adventure that went horribly wrong. And then there is Glauco’s story, largely unreported outside Brazil, although it is one of the most curious cases of them all.

Riding the Highs and Lows with My Mom” (Valentina Valentini, Longreads, August 21, 2019)

Valentina Valentini’s life-long role-reversal with her mother gets up-ended one psychedelic night in the Hollywood Hills, giving her the chance to become the daughter, once again.

She handed me the pipe. I politely refused. We went back to listening to the girl croon.

Not many minutes later I began to feel lightheaded. And warm. I knew it would get hot in that tiny room. My first thought was that I might be inhaling some second-hand smoke, therefore creating a bit of a contact high. I wasn’t altogether opposed to that, so I sat still a little while longer. Then my eyes started to feel heavy. Very heavy. I whispered to my mother that I was going to take a step outside and get some air. She seemed concerned, but only mildly. I assured her I’d be fine, snuck through the haphazard chairs with swaying wannabe hippies in them, and stepped out the shop door.

The Trip of a Lifetime” (Laura Miller, Slate, May 14, 2018)

In the context of some reads on psychedelic drugs, Laura Miller looks at Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. In it, Pollan says that drugs such as psilocybin and LSD got a bad rap after some flawed scientific experimentation and images of burned-out, ’60s counter-culture hippies soured Americans on exploring the medical benefits these drugs might offer, suggesting that their mind-altering abilities might help free us from cognitive patterns that are holding us back.

If How to Change Your Mind furthers the popular acceptance of psychedelics as much as I suspect it will, it will be by capsizing the long association, dating from Leary’s time, between the drugs and young people. Pollan observes that the young have had less time to establish the cognitive patterns that psychedelics temporarily overturn. But “by middle age,” he writes, “the sway of habitual thinking over the operations of the mind is nearly absolute.” What he sought in his own trips was not communion with a higher consciousness so much as the opportunity to “renovate my everyday mental life.” He felt that the experience made him more emotionally open and appreciative of his relationships. Both Waldman and Lin report similar effects, even though Waldman never actually tripped. The promise of hyperlight travel, revolution, and spiritual transcendence be damned: If psychedelics can help cure the midlife crises of disaffected baby boomers and Gen Xers, then it’s only a matter of time until we’ll be able to pick them up with a prescription at our local pharmacy.