One of my favourite stories about the Buddha involves a monk named Sona, who had once been a musician and played the vina, a stringed instrument similar to a lute. He had come to ask the Buddha for advice for his meditation practice that seemed to be a little stuck. The Buddha asks him about his time spent playing the vina, and whether, when the strings were too tight, he was able to play. Sona responds no. The Buddha then asks him if the strings were tuned very loose whether he was able to play. And he responds no. Then the Buddha explains that his meditation practice should be the same way, finding balance between persistence and discipline, and letting go.
This has always resonated with me, and I used to think that was in large part because of how much I loved music, to which I devoted many years of my professional life. I still love music, but I keep coming back to this simple teaching as a beacon for navigating the nuances of what it means to be well, both individually, and collectively. And as that concern—and my meditation and mindfulness practice—has collided with a decades-long interest and belief in the promise of psychedelic medicine, I’ve come to believe that this teaching still has much wisdom to impart, and that we need to practice “not too tight, not too loose” more than ever.
So I want to begin by stating plainly that I believe psychedelics are the most powerful tool we have right now as a civilization, a species, and a planet, to heal. I have experienced and witnessed their ability to release individuals from years of painful, habitual patterns and addictions; to repair relationships that appeared permanently damaged; to relieve depression, anxiety and PTSD symptoms by releasing traumas stored in the body; and to restore a sense of childlike wonder and connection to the natural world. I do not believe that the revolution currently underway in mental health around these medicines is a fad. Yes, the momentum behind this movement is bolstered by an explosion of incredibly encouraging and rigorous research over the last decade or so, but not only can you trace this research back through to the 1950s (where researchers in Saskatchewan were seeing promising results treating alcoholism with LSD)—I would argue that this movement also owes a deep debt to some much older methods of healing and models of well-being. Some of these practices have survived for millennia via various indigenous populations throughout the world, most notably in South and Central America in the ritual use of ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote and other so-called ‘plant medicines.’ I don’t believe these medicines are ‘new,’ rather I see the current movement as a dramatic rediscovery of an essential healing tool that we, as a species, especially in the industrialized western world, had almost lost entirely.
That said, I’m not so naive to believe that this ‘rediscovery’ necessarily means that these medicines will automatically solve all of the world’s problems, just as I don’t believe that one significant psychedelic experience will necessarily ‘heal’ an individual for life. In 2018’s How to Change Your Mind—the bestseller that has become a key marker for the momentum of this movement—Michael Pollan does an eloquent job of exploring some of the theories around why these compounds seem to have such a similarly significant effect on so many different afflictions of the mind, from addiction to depression to PTSD. One argument is that many of these forms of mental suffering share roots in a kind of runaway rigidity in the brain. In other words, they initially develop as coping mechanisms in order to make navigating the world a more efficient and manageable task, but at some point they get out of hand and become so deeply entrenched that they can feel inescapable and suffocating, and not serve us at all. Somehow, psychedelics appear to be able to temporarily loosen many of these mental grips we carry around, and open a window which—with the right conditions and accompanying support—can lead to real transformation and healing where many other forms of treatment seem to fail. In other words, they seem to be able to help loosen the strings of the lute when they’ve gotten so tight you can’t play anymore.
There is still a lot we don’t know about why this happens, and the mechanisms of this action in the brain, and it will be interesting to see where the research and neuroscience goes in the coming months and years. One thing I think that is clear with this approach to healing, which psychedelics share with meditation and mindfulness practices, is the method of turning towards difficulties and really engaging with and feeling into them, rather than attempting to keep their symptoms managed, and at bay. In fact this is one place where psychedelics can be a powerful complement to the slower approach of a meditation practice, which on its own—especially in cases involving unresolved trauma—can sometimes only ‘open the valve’ enough for re-triggering to occur, without providing a container to help accept and resolve these painful experiences. I don’t mean to suggest that psychedelics are necessarily a guaranteed tool for resolving trauma, or that trauma-sensitive mindfulness practices and somatic work can’t also be effective on their own. (And psychedelics can also be the source of traumatic experiences.) What I want to highlight is that this process of healing, for any individual, is highly contextual, and not a binary question of flipping a switch in one direction or another, but rather a question of carefully using these tools to tune ourselves back into some kind alignment. Sometimes it does take the dramatic, full octave adjustment that only psychedelics seem to be able to engender, but it’s also possible to overshoot, and to need to tighten things back up.
And this is where I believe we do run some risk with this movement, having also seen first hand what can happen when things get ‘too loose.’ In a world that has tightened its grip on itself so desperately and blindly that it is starting to catch fire, making the argument for everyone to loosen up is easy. There is a global emergency, and in the recent words of Rosalind Watts, one of the lead psychedelics researchers at Imperial College London, this is an “all hands on deck” situation. I believe it’s criminal that so many of these compounds are illegal, especially when one considers that almost all of them are incredibly safe from a physiological perspective—at any dose—and unlikely to cause harm to the user or others, which certainly cannot be said for most prescription medication (to say nothing of alcohol). And I think any government or regulatory body that has an interest in tackling addiction, depression, anxiety, PTSD, or end of life care should make it a top priority to legalize these substances, full stop.
But if it’s all too clear what happens when all the strings are tuned too tightly, I do think we need to examine what it looks like when they’re also too loose. My questions around this don’t have so much to do with regulation and access to these medicines, and the pros and cons of medicalization vs decriminalization, although these are important issues. I hope my statements above make it clear that I think the status quo is a bit of a burning building, and that the dangers of not moving swiftly and broadly are far too great. How to make that happen is another question.
The obvious example of the dangers of psychedelics as a great ‘loosening mechanism of the mind’ is psychosis, but one I’m somewhat reluctant to highlight, in part because I believe those risks are much lower than the historical propaganda around these substances might have us believe. But I do think it’s useful to keep in mind as we think about what working with these substances can do, and how sometimes we need to break down a boundary, and sometimes we need to erect one. Again, in this day and age, I’m much more inclined to suspect that in most cases the former is probably a better idea, but not without exception, and not without context.
There are psychonauts and mystics throughout history that might argue that the moment of breaking down all boundaries is synonymous with enlightenment, or the moment of death, or both. And those of us that have had psychedelic experiences that mimic these states, however fleeting, can speak to the utility of them upon returning to the world of the living. But as long as we are still in the world of the living and interested in remaining in it, what do we actually do with these experiences, and these lessons? Or to put it another way, once the strings have all been loosened, what key should we tune them in? What does ‘tightening’ really mean?
There is a fear among some in both the psychedelic and mindfulness communities that these tools are simply being turned into another product to be commodified, consumed and applied as ointment to numb us to the ongoing, extractivist and oppressive systems that seem to have gotten us into this mess in the first place. I’m not that cynical about things, but I do think it’s important to pay attention to what kind of values and structures we privilege as we reboot our brains with these medicines and practices, especially if we believe that defaulting to business as usual is likely to get us in even hotter water.
One thing we don’t hear a lot about in the wake of all these success stories is how much people are still suffering, even after very “successful” treatments, or how much people continue to work with these medicines only to have other, maybe less extreme but nevertheless still difficult issues arise. I think there are two reasons for this. One of them is that as long as we are human, living in this world of colour, and flesh and sound, we’re going to suffer. I don’t think we need to romanticize or indulge that, but I think anyone that believes there’s a final way out where you get to have all our human pleasure without the pain is on a fool’s errand. Those who think that psychedelics can be bought and sold as a solution to this ‘problem’ are in for a rude awakening.
But I think there’s another angle here, one that the Buddha might approve of, and which psychedelics consistently help to highlight, at least for me. And that’s the mistake we make in thinking that we are some kind of solid thing that is separate from everything else; that our suffering exists in a vacuum, that it is ours alone, or perhaps more accurately, that another’s suffering is theirs alone. We compound the pain by attempting to distance ourselves from it, or thinking that we can rid ourselves of it by passing it on to those around us. And it doesn’t work. It just creates a bigger, more painful gap.
If anything I think the danger of getting “too loose” with psychedelics or other non-ordinary states of consciousness is one where we are engaging with or encouraging these practices in an overly individualistic manner, releasing the grips of our minds without challenging and caring for the other individuals and systems to which that mind is connected. That’s a recipe for dissociative crisis, no matter how many times we glimpse enlightenment. And I’d argue that psychedelic interventions that are ultimately ineffective in treating the “too tight” afflictions would speak to a similar problem—one where we have ignored the ability of a disconnected, dysfunctional environment to bring a ‘treated’ individual back into crisis.
If we are going to harness these tools, this is where I think we need to shift our attention, to the perspective and lived experience of realizing that yes, we really are all connected, right down to the mushrooms growing out of the cow shit in the field. But the implications of that cliche are not all rainbows when there is so much evidence and history of that connection being abused or severed, often rather painfully. And some might even argue that that painful moment is unavoidably woven right into the fabric of reality. So then what?
How do you mend a shared wound, when one party needs space, and the other needs to be touched?
How do you play a paradox?
I’m still not sure it can ever be finally ‘done,’ but I suspect that if it can, the answer is “not too tight, not too loose.”