Exploring Psychedelics in Religious Trauma Recovery — Part 2: Intellectual Peace & Fear of the Given Self
(This is Part 2 in a series of articles about exploring Psychedelics in recovery from Religious Trauma. Geoffrey Wallis is not a medical professional. His anecdotal experience is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.)
I arranged my affairs to take my psilocybin trip on an uninterrupted Saturday morning and invited two trusted advisors; both mental health professionals. I thawed out 3 grams of raw psilocybe mushrooms from my freezer and at the appointed time, tossed them in my mouth, swallowed them quickly, and chased them with a spoonful of local raw honey (those little guys are not the most palatable of the fungi family).
After 45 minutes, I still hadn’t felt any psychedelic effects and took a 1 gram booster. Then, as the literature advises, I laid down. I had prepared the room specifically for the occasion. It was fit with everything recommended by Fadiman in the Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide and Mark Haden’s Manual for Psychedelic Guides: flowers, incense, water in a crystal glass, sleep mask, headphones, a note pad, and my phone containing a Spotify playlist with 6 hours of instrumental music.
I put on the sleep mask and headphones and waited for lift-off. Ten minutes or so after the booster, I briefly dipped into a trance-like state (full of swirling purple galactic portals) but quickly returned to normal consciousness. I reached out to my sitter,
“I’m almost there but I’m not going completely under”, I said. “Do I need to take more?”
My psychiatrist friend recommended that I boost the trip again, this time with cannabis. So, I stumbled up the stairs to my kitchen fridge and retrieved half a cannabis edible which I quickly chewed and swallowed.
Shortly after, I discovered why psychedelic users call themselves psychonauts. The “onaut” part of the word, of course, calls to mind images of astronauts exploding into orbit atop 1,000 tons of liquid fuel, violently catapulting 17,000 miles per hour out of the earth’s atmosphere into the quiet and limitless expanse of outer space. I’ve never been an astronaut and I suspect the blast-off is substantially more turbulent. But Hollywood depictions of an explosive liftoff culminating in a dramatic entrance into the infinite quiet of anti-gravity space is an apt metaphor for the onset of the psychedelic experience.
Mindset & Psychospiritual Expectations
Based on my pre-launch readings, I was anticipating two hallmark experiences of the psychedelic trip; the ones most often discussed in the literature. First, I was forewarned by my guide that at some point during my trip I may have an overwhelming fear that I am dying and that I should, in that very moment, “choose to die” and release myself to the full scope of the journey. This appears to coincide with the falling away of the egoic self often cited as a therapeutic benefit of psychedelic use.
Second, as I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, scientific research has connected psilocybin use with mystical experiences. It appears that depending on an individual’s base psychospiritual framework, the mystical experience may be interpreted as either a vision of God, feeling like God him/herself, or, for the less religiously inclined, a sense of cosmic unity and oneness. I entered my trip interested to see how these two common states (ego death and a mystical experience) would manifest themselves in my case given my history of spiritual abuse. These two expectations comprised what psychedelic explorers call “set” — the mindset and intention of a user that inform the interpretation of the drug effects.
As it turned out, my trip did indeed center around two distinctly altered states of consciousness that I will discuss further in this series. In the giggle-filled audio notes that I recorded on my iPhone’s Voice Memo app, I repeatedly refer to these two states as “the peace space” and “the god space”. For the sake of these articles, and to translate these prosaic expressions into a more academically accessible vocabulary, I will refer to the two states as the psychological state of intellectual peace and the psychological state of openness to expressions of infinity.
When it comes to states of consciousness experienced during psychedelic trips, the article “Psychedelics, Meditation, and Self-Consciousness” that appeared in the Journal Frontiers in Psychology states: “It is important to emphasize right away that neither meditation nor psychedelic states can be conceived as simple, uniform categories. Many variables modulate the subjective effects of contemplative practice and psychedelics, including the style of meditation or the drug and dosage used, as well as personal factors such as level of experience and personality traits. In particular, dramatic disruptions of self-consciousness seem to occur mostly for highly experienced meditators or with high doses of psychedelics. Thus, we suggest that both meditation and psychedelics can induce a wide variety of global states of consciousness” (Milliere et al, 2018).
Therefore, the nomenclature I am using to communicate the states of consciousness that I experienced under the influence of 4 grams of psilocybin and half a cannabis edible is my own and not a reflection of any accepted framework of non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC). Because of my journey away from oppressive religion and rejection of theology as a vehicle to interpret spiritual experiences I have chosen to avoid faith-based language. All this is to say that the syntax I am choosing to communicate my psychedelic experience will be mostly secular; drawn from my recent readings of humanist psychology, popular books on philosophy and neuroscience, and what I have learned during my regular mindfulness practice.
The Psychological State of Intellectual Peace
In the few tumultuous years leading up to my religious disillusionment, peace became a foreign concept. I knew what excitement felt like (an emotion that I think is often confused with happiness or joy), but not peace. As l I deconstructed my illusory faith, explored my life more inquisitively, and accepted what I found there, I begin to taste peace again. As I discuss in A Voice from Inside, this tentative and elusive grasp of peace and the quest to expand it in myself and others is what I call, for now, spirituality.
I have never known such an unending peace as I did during my psilocybin trip. As the velocity of the journey increased, I began to experience a distinct separation between the affective sensations of fear (that I felt mainly in my gut) and the clarity of my creative and intellectual cognition. It was as if I was gazing at fear from a distance; even greater than the distance I am able to attain through meditation.
What was this fear? I wondered. I continued to analyze it.
Just then, my guide coughed and I felt what had been a little ember of fear burst into a tiny flame.
I explored the tiny flame of fear that had been ignited by re-awareness of my sitter’s presence. It was social fear; fear of the damaging potential of social influence on my independent cognition, and frustration at the inevitability of conflict in all human interaction. Humans present me with a challenge. Society has expectations. What would other humans think, for example, if I dared speak of my psychedelic vision of the talking cow (more on this in part 3)? Creative and abstract cognition that transgresses social norms is inherently dangerous. The greater the gap between socially normative cognition and my internal processes, the more potential for ostracization. As Thomas Szasz states in his introduction to The Myth of Mental Illness, “Being wrong can be dangerous, but being right, when society regards the marjority’s falsehood as truth, could be fatal” (Sasz, 2010).
Meditation has taught me to notice my social fears as they appear in consciousness. As I deconstructed my religious upbringing, I realized that so much of my motivation, particularly my religious motivation, was fear. At the deepest level, fear of death, of the meaninglessness of life, of alienation, and of becoming a violent or sexually perverted person in the absence of the protective powers of the Almighty created a lifestyle of religious compulsion. Beyond these existential fears were the fears inherent in my ideologically totalist environment including coercive intrusion of congregation elders into my personal life and the fear of community disapproval, shaming, and ultimately shunning and rejection by my dearest loved ones as an apostate.
The uncomfortable little flame upon which I gazed from a distance during my psilocybin trip was the remnant of living my entire life in constant threat of complete social isolation simply for thinking differently than others. As in my normal waking consciousness, this little flame of social anxiety was preventing me from fully experiencing the psychological state of intellectual peace that lay before me. But, nobody knew about this trip, I could choose who I would share my experiences with, so what was I really afraid of?
I returned to analyze the little flame again. There was more to it. The space between the flame and the peace that lay before me was getting bigger. The psychological state of intellectual peace that I was about to release myself into was immense and cavernous. I was briefly afraid that I would get caught there forever. If I succumbed to the depths of my abstract thought, perhaps I would never be able to relate to my fellow man again. I would in truth have “lost my mind”, that is, have such absurdity of thought that I might never again be understood by others or accepted by society. I would be dismissed as insane, delusional, psychotic.
It seemed that this was the ego death of which I had been warned, I had to make a decision. As my guide had suggested, I had to “let myself die”. I was frightened for an instant but quickly remembered that I had experienced a similar sensation before in past meditative sessions when experiencing the illusory nature of the self. This fear of losing myself somehow felt familiar.
I thought to myself, “Why would I not want to get caught in such a place of peace? If I never came back, would it even matter? What better place could there be to be caught for eternity”.
I let myself go.
Forgetting the Given Self
“Ego loss” or “ego death” has been defined as the “complete loss of subjective self-identity” (Johnson et al, 2008) and was famously connected to the psychedelic experience by the notorious Timothy Leary. According to many psychonauts, the experience of ego death during psychedelic trips yields a less self-centered view of the world and allows them to focus more on contributions they can make to fellow creatures. As Ty Dolla Sign and Kanye West put it, “ego death is where you find happiness” (Griffin et al, 2020).
Frankly, prior to my trip, I had mixed feelings about ego death.
Watch Tower literature focuses heavily on humility and self-sacrifice in the reduction of arrogant egoism by providing constant reminders of the sinful condition of man and his need for God’s forgiveness based on faith in the Messiah in order to have any hope for the future. The toxicity of Christian theology is based on this trauma bond: induced feelings of shame for so-called “bad conduct” according to god’s standards and then an offer of forgiveness in exchange for submission and compliance to the very one doling out the shame. In my experience with RTS, only by rejecting god’s monopoly on morality did I manage to interrupt this toxic cycle.
For members of New Religious Movements, focusing on self-identity (rather than losing it in “ego death”) is an important step in awakening from the hive-mind of a collectivist community. Individualist psychology from Carl Jung helped me to realize that I did not need the approval of either a god or of a social group to be worthy of my own breath. So I looked inward, created my own values, and felt liberated.
As is the polarizing nature of reactive psychology, my trauma recovery began with a phase wherein my self-concept was all-important. I became hypervigilant to safeguard my own thinking against social influence or manipulation. Loosening my death grip on my individuality (as would happen during ego death) felt threatening. It is possible that for some recovering from RTS this portion of the trip would be more frightening than it was for me. Indeed, it would have been for earlier versions of myself. Perhaps the hours of Buddhist Vipassana meditation that I have logged in the past few years made me slightly more comfortable with the concept of “no self” and made the psychedelic ego death of my first psilocybin trip less overwhelming.
As I let myself go further into the psychological state of intellectual peace, the tiny flame of fear grew even smaller still. I again turned to dissect it to further understand its significance. I seemed to be able to feel it in both my gut and in the back of my head (at least, I perceived it to be in the back of my head. This may have simply been a projection based on textbook diagrams of the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, sitting at the back of the head above the brain stem and spinal cord). The flame of fear was now completely separated from the peace and clarity of my abstract and linguistic cognition — as if my emotional sensations would never again cloud my cognition.
Just then, my sitter coughed again, and the flame reignited. Suddenly, a thought came to me. This was not the fear of losing myself, I thought. “The self is given,” I popped up to a seated position and exclaimed out loud.
“The self is given,” I popped up to a seated position and exclaimed out loud.
I had recently come upon this thought in a discussion with a university professor about the nature of personality. At the time, I was struggling with the convention in clinical psychology of labeling personality disorders. As I have written before, I am concerned that when a client receives the nomenclature to describe their personality disorder they may in fact absorb the diagnostic label as part of their identity. The label may then become a roadblock to the more painful, but ultimately more rewarding task of growth toward psychological balance.
“Personality is an observer phenomenon,” I said to my professor at the time.
This concept of the given self was enlightened for me as I entered the psychological state of intellectual peace. As in creatively challenging flow states (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997), I realized that in the absence of others (be they humans or higher cognition animals), an individual does not experience the self. They do not experience their personality, nor any extension of it such as gender identity, sexual orientation, personality profile, enneagram, or otherwise. They experience only clear creative cognition and productive expression. They are simply in the process of being what others will later refer to with personality descriptors. With no others against which to reflect one’s observable behaviors, the self is not experienced at the individual level.
During my psilocybin trip, I had a vision of the given self. The tiny flame (that I had identified as social fear) suddenly morphed into a sliver of glass that rested in space between my unobstructed intellectual cognition and the energy of social influence. From the perspective of my mind toward the world, the glass was invisible. Others, it seemed, would place the lens between me and themselves as if to clarify my speech and behavior, like a magnifying glass or double-sided interrogation room window.
I had a distinct feeling that being given a self was unavoidable. From the time we are infants, we are referred to with the English word “you” and told details about ourselves by individuals of greater authority (parents, adults, religious leaders, teachers). This social influence causes an individual to begin to believe the language used to refer to them and absorb the concepts into their own cognition, thus creating the illusory self that may later (perhaps by way of meditation or a psychedelic experience) be deconstructed.
If the given self is absorbed at the personal level, it holds the potential to limit the infinite discovery of intellect and peace. This is a danger that afflicts many — a restriction on their creative potential based on their acceptance of a given self and inability to comprehend its illusory nature.
But in the psychological state of intellectual peace, my thinking was not bound by the restrictions of the given self. The expanse grew and stretched infinitely in every direction as my mind attempted to integrated abstract thought with linguistic cognition that I might use to communicated epiphanies with others.
Understanding this at the experiential level during my trip appeared to strengthen my conviction to maintain a state of peace amidst perceived threats presented by social interaction. I came to understand that the conclusions others make about me are simply the lens with which they attempt to understand expressions drawn from this psychological state of intellectual peace. This realization made me less fearful or angry at the reality that others, especially those who have not yet had the experience of no-self, will inevitably attempt to formulate a construct (a self) and prescribe it to me. This potentially painful tendency is at the heart of interpersonal conflict particularly those involving religious, political, ideological, and biological (racial and sexual) biases. Rather than interestedly examining expression emanating from an individual’s peace state, some will seek to create a personality construct, label another with it, and use it to inform their behavior in future interactions
I turned again to the little flame, my fear of the given self, and drifted further into the depths of my psychological state of intellectual peace.
Awe at the Depth of the Peace State
Restrictions on my creative and intellectual expression are at the heart of my religious trauma. The teaching that one must bring “every thought into captivity to make it obedient to the Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, Watch Tower, 2013) speaks directly to the psychological captivity of closed religious communities. This fundamental theology underpinned my religious scrupulosity (Greenberg, 2010). I felt the need to perform my religious compulsions not only after any wayward act but also at every unholy thought. Especially in the realm of sexuality was this damaging for me. Sexual ideation is condemned by Jehovah’s Witnesses and I restricted it with a strength that sapped my creative energy for any constructive use toward the betterment of the global community of humanity. But during my trip, the psychological state of intellectual peace felt abundantly creative. Every outlandish idea could be pursued and explored in its unequivocal truth absent of any need for a logical argument or explanation. I experience no concern that any thought would be considered too frightening or psychotic by others who would not or would be afraid to understand it.
However, in my trance, I also clearly understood my post-trip responsibility. I knew that my true challenge and the work of my future involved developing the skill to draw more information from my peace state, connect it to linguistic cognition, and communicate it in a way that could be understood by others. To the extent that I can do this for the sake of my fellow man, I will be able to share the abundance of my peace with others. This, in turn, will broaden their peace.
Also, the peace state betrayed time. The distance between my breaths contained an astounding amount of information; images and theories stacking upon themselves inexhaustibly. By the time the next breath emerged from my lungs, the previous one felt like a distant memory. The number of events contained in the space between two breaths did not correspond to what I knew of time in normal waking consciousness. Time had expanded, or rather, the unrestricted workings of my mind were so rapid, that time had slowed down. The clock, I realized, was the most successful social construct of human history.
I wondered if I had, in fact, been caught in the psychological state of intellectual peace forever. Suddenly I became puzzled. How could it be so expansive? It was infinitely quiet and undisturbed. Something seemed wrong. What had happened?
As it turned out, my first playlist had ended, my headphones were silent. “No wonder it seems so peaceful”, I thought and sat up, giggling at the ridiculousness of it all. I exclaimed aloud with hilarity,
“Oh, the profundities!”
I chuckled and chuckled like the voice at the end of Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” (Waters, 1973).
The psychological state of abundant peace had prepared me for another state. In my drug-induced hilarity, I would refer to this state as “the God space”. (In response to a text message inquiring how my trip was going, I had responded to a friend: “I’m in the God space….Weee!”) For the sake of this series, I will refer to it as the psychological state of openness to expressions of infinity and it will be the topic of Part 3.