I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.― Frank Herbert, Dune
Stanislav Grof, who estimates he has guided over 4000 therapeutic encounters with a diverse range of psychedelic substances, describes psychedelics as non-specific amplifiers of the contents of consciousness. Rather than producing a reliable experience of pain relief, energy, disinhibition, or relaxation, these drugs act more like funhouse mirrors, showing you caricatures of certain aspects of your inner experience – whether they be conscious, subconscious or unconscious. Or like skeleton keys to the various conceptual and emotional themes that are influencing your life. Or like passageways into supernatural territories.
In this article, we’ll first discuss the stages through which a psychedelic experience moves, and will then talk more at length about the different Realms of Insight that can be identified in a psychedelic experience. Bear in mind that we’re talking about relatively broad categories here, which are definitely not one-size-fits-all.
The Stages of a Trip
Let’s start at the beginning, with you taking the psychedelic substance. After a refractory period, it will begin its work. Increasingly intense, the so-called come-up is generally regarded as the least pleasant stage of the psychedelic experience. Sometimes, there may be nausea (some drugs produce more of it, while others hardly produce any at all), or other physical discomfort. People report that showering or bathing can help with these effects, as water is generally an ally in psychedelic settings. Be mindful of the risk of drowning, although that probably won’t be much of a risk with normal bathtubs. Others take fresh ginger, either in capsules or tea, to combat the urge to emit. Still others accept vomiting – or “purging” – as part of the experience, and don’t give it another thought, other than to frame it as a necessary and healthy purifying process.
The come-up opens into the peak of the experience, which tends to be a relatively long-lasting affair. This is where most of the magic happens, and it tends to take up 30-40% of the entire duration of the drug experience. This article mainly discusses experiences that occur during the peak.
Depending on psychedelic drug, dosage, route of administration, and individual differences, the peak either slowly morphs into a plateau, where you are habituated to the experience and get to be more playful with it, or skips the plateau phase and diminishes into a gradual come-down that will last all the way to what is perceived as baseline. At this point, the drug likely has not lost its entire potency, and whiffs of the experience, along with an afterglow, may remain present in your system for days.
The Realms of Insight
So a psychedelic experience involves a kind of altered state of consciousness, that much I hope is clear. In these altered states, things are being perceived, conceived of, and assimilated, kind of like the way things work in ordinary life, but also a little bit differently. In order to get a handle on those differences, I’ve taken the liberty to compose a short model of the realms of knowing, or insight, that one may encounter when exploring these psychedelic altered states. So far, in my own explorations as well as my work and discussions with others, I’ve encountered five sort-of discrete levels, that of course bleed into each other, but are nevertheless recognizable to travelers familiar with this terrain.
The five levels are:
- The Realm of the Lava Lamp
- The Lower Realm of Inner Work
- The Higher Realm of Inner Work
- The Realm(s) of Unfathomable Lunacy
- The Realm of Quiet Understanding
The first three realms build on top of each other, dosage-wise, and can be reliably reproduced by increasing the dosage and adjusting one’s preparatory work. The fourth can sometimes be reached by dosing higher, but also by changing the drug and/or its route of administration. The fifth level describes more of a meta-understanding of the consecutive insights, and ultimately points to a model where all experiences are adjuncts to the structural development of ever-greater insights and freedom.
The Realm of the Lava Lamp
In this level of psychedelic experience, there is slight reality distortion, mainly on a perceptual level. A tripper sees tracers, kaleidoscopic colors, and peripheral vision seems most affected. When the eyes are closed, imagery may become immersive and expansive. Synesthesia – a blending of the senses – may occur, and the psychedelic traveler may smell sounds, or see tastes. Music appreciation is enhanced, and may elicit great outpourings of emotion. Naturally, inhibitions are lowered if the tripper chooses to surrender to the experience.
On the other hand, the voyager may not feel very confident or at ease and may start resisting the psychedelic trip, which does not bode well for the rest of the experience. Fear is the Mind-Killer. We will meet fear again in lots of incarnations, and rarely does it lead to a good experience. Usually though, a momentary change of scenery, lighting, music or mindset is sufficient to instantly return the tripper to their enjoyment. This is good to keep in mind, because this general pattern holds for all of the Insight Realms: that the difference between a “good” psychedelic experience and a “bad” one is often a matter of changing a single thought.
The Realm of the Lava Lamp is the territory of the slightly trippy features that the typical “festival-goer” is interested in. There is little insight to be had, apart from the experiential insight that it is possible to perceive the world, and oneself in a different way from one’s usual mode of being.
The Lower Realm of Inner Work
Emotionally repressed, or forgotten, stuff may start bubbling up from what psychiatrists call the “subconscious.” These memories, filtered through the reality distortion field of the psychedelic drug, may appear dream-like, yet very real at the same time. There may arise a feeling of finally understanding something about the provenance of these emotions, and about the way they subtly influence your day to day existence, and there may be a sense of finally being free of that particular complex of emotional baggage. A seeing through to the heart of where a specific manifestation of anger, anxiety, loneliness, or sadness comes from, perhaps linking together for the first time problematic experiences that previously appeared unrelated.
However, it’s good to know that seeing through a particular “knot” does not eradicate its myriad manifestations, as they are built from the building blocks of learned behaviors, AKA habits. If the “forgotten” and emotionally highly salient content could be viewed as the roots of a plant, the behavior patterns that result can be seen as its flowers, and the habits that create behavior patterns are its stalks and branches that live above-ground. Those habits are left intact, although their connection to the roots that gave rise to them might be (partly) severed, meaning that whereas the plant might sprout no more new stalks and branches, the ones that are there already are left untouched.
And, really, you wouldn’t want it any other way, as these habits are created more or less in the same way that skills like riding a bicycle, playing the piano, or knowing someone’s history are: through learning. You wouldn’t want any of those skills to be susceptible to instant eradication, would you? That would undermine the mechanism of learning, arguably one of the strongest things we’ve got going for us as a species.
Really dismantling old habits and behavior patterns is really tough work, and requires thorough integration and strong vigilance for quite a while after the trip has ended. Then again, the human mind is incredibly powerful, and the power of belief can do a lot of the work for you. So, if you genuinely believe that a particular behavior pattern or emotional complex has been healed by the drug, chances are that it has.
It’s not all sunshine and liberation. This surfacing of repressed emotions during a psychedelic experience can also be a scary thing to have happen. It can be scary if you weren’t expecting anything of the sort to arise, and especially if you’ve cultivated a habit of avoiding or resisting emotions. There can be a strong tendency to avoid or resist now, as well, and that may lead to some nasty internal conflicts. Essentially, you’re battling yourself in the psychological equivalent of a mirror fight. It doesn’t matter who wins, in the end you always lose.
The only smart thing to do is surrender. As it’s basically always fear that makes you avoid or resist, you need to find the wherewithal to turn your fear into its exact counterpart: curiosity. These two poles cannot exist at the same time. To the extent that one comes into existence, the other one fades away. Aim for surrendering into curiosity, and if you can’t do this by yourself, get a sitter to remind you.
If you don’t, you’ll likely have a bad experience. Whatever threatens to surface will be buried under just as much muck this time, to “ensure” that it stays put, precluding any chance of a quick resolution, which is eminently in the cards, and could be yours for just a few surrenders and a dollop of curiosity. Moreover, by resisting you’ll have expended so much energy that you’re spent before the peak of the experience has even ended. And for the remainder of the experience, you’re just buffeted this way and that, by the cruel winds of fate, or at least it will feel that way. You’ll come out of the experience relieved that it’s over, but unable to claim the benefits of catharsis, and perhaps sensing that you’ve somehow failed. And this is before the hangover from taking the drug sets in, which can be anywhere from non-existent to moderately uncomfortable, depending on the drug, dose, your mindset, any lack of rest, other drugs in your system, hydration, the general state of your health, and your diet running up to this moment.
So surrender and curiosity are indispensible allies in this realm, that can make the difference between an insightful experience and a bad trip.
The Higher Realm of Inner Work
As the dosage increases, or as one graduates to more insightful substances, or as the intention of the tripper to aim for this realm grows stronger, the psychedelic axe cuts ever deeper. No longer aimed at the roots of individual emotional trouble spots or traumas, the mind of the tripper starts to closely examine itself, its manifestations (the roles and identifications we assume), but especially its own roots. A plant of a different magnitude, if we were to keep the plant analogy, that would allow for similar, smaller plants like the emotional ones of the previous level, like fractals of itself, to embed inside it. Or the very soil in which the plants of the “lower realm of inner work” grow. Or to stop using flowery metaphors at all, to look at the very concept of Self, or Ego, which each of us tacitly assumes exists inside of us. Not only to look at it in fact, but to shatter the illusion that it shows itself to be.
The divide between crippling mental illness and euphoric gnosis of the extraordinary sometimes hinges on the momentary decision to let go into trust
This is the realm of ego-death, or perhaps more accurately ego dissolution, since it will be “reborn” soon enough. The illusion of a “separate self” dissolves, and now a lot of things can happen. The most favourable scenario is that the tripper just goes with the flow, allowing the experience to fully unfold exactly as it needs to. In this case, it is highly likely that the tripper experiences a thorough feeling of bliss, freedom, and a hard-to-describe oneness-with-everything, that borders on the mystical. Time and space, and even the very sense of existence may lose their meaning, leading one to a timeless, dimensionless experience—which is not an experience—where every ”thing” both is and isn’t, everything is you, and you are everything, and no-thing at the same time, and more of these poor attempts at explaining what the beyond-conceptual signifies.
In the wake of this non-experience, there is often a lot of insight into how the tripper makes themselves suffer in their everyday lives, and how they may be able to move beyond such pedestrian concerns, being as they are now in the possession of ultimate truth. These trippers return to their “normal” state of consciousness, convinced that they have just experienced ultimate reality, the mind of God, the mystical union of all creation, or some other flowery spiritual metaphor that happens to gel with their personal proclivities or religious upbringing. Often compared to Near-Death Experiences, or the poetic descriptions of mystics from all walks of life, a tripper feels they are an initiate into a select gathering of gnostics, mystics, and sages.
But. There is a but. For a minority of people who experience this “non-experience,” re-entry into their old lives becomes problematic. They have trouble integrating the experience, can’t bring themselves to engage with their lives, and have difficulty relating to their social circles. This can deepen into an existential crisis, where it’s hard to figure out what to do next. Life After Ego Death is aimed primarily at people who are currently experiencing this.
On the other end of the spectrum is the scenario that the tripper is so completely overwhelmed by the speed and depth of the psychedelic experience that they fight it with all they have got. Instead of surrendering, they hang on to what they have always known as safety for dear life, and in doing so may project their fears on the rapidly descending white bedsheets of eternity, rendering their fears even more monstrous and threatening than they already are. At some point in this descent into full-blown psychosis, there may be a moment of grace; a tranquil moment in the great storm, where the tripper is enticed to yet fully surrender and enjoy the ride. If they do, they immediately make the switch into the experience of the first description. These moments of psychedelic grace occur, but not always, and they are not always recognized by the unfortunate experiencer. Improper preparation, especially in the realm of mindset, is generally “at fault” here. A (partial) bad trip is almost always the result, and one that can have ramifications for the tripper’s everyday mental health. As the voyager is in such a sensitive condition during this experience, and the sense of self is so thoroughly and forcefully dismantled, every moment spent in full-on survival mode creates strong imprints on that which tries to survive. It can be almost like a childhood trauma, where the innocent and helpless being is maligned by ungraspable forces beyond its control.
It is a sad fact of life that the divide between crippling mental illness and euphoric gnosis of the extraordinary sometimes hinges on the momentary confident (or indeed sometimes desperate) decision to let go into trust. If anything, it is a strong reflection on the power and wisdom behind considering the counterintuitive option when faced with contracted experiences that are neither welcome nor necessary. When threatened, surrender into curiosity. When angered, tap into your capacity for kindness. When saddened, practice gratitude. To the extent that you’re capable of doing stuff like this, you won’t need to read Life After Ego Death at all.
But, we’re not yet done with the Realms of Insight! Let’s continue our treatment…
The Realm of Unfathomable Lunacy
Unfathomable lunacy? Well, at least that is how it appears to me. Encounters with entities, aliens, spirit guides, travel in fractal cityscapes, dense jungles or far-flung kubistic realms, playing with dimensions of reality not just imperceptible, but unimaginable to your normal self. Spending any amount of time here, even sceptics quickly understand what shamans and psychonauts are on about when they talk about astral travel, locating lost objects, talking to spirits and deceased people, and seeing the future.
This realm is beyond reason, and therefore beyond proper description, and that is why I choose to say relatively little about it, only that you don’t necessarily have to pass through any of the above stages to arrive here. Some psychedelic substances will simply catapult you into these realms and transport you back when the experience is over. Rest assured though, and be warned, the normal dimensions of space and time have no bearing on the experience that you’re about to embark on, and there won’t be any familiar place for you to place your security in.
If this is interesting terrain to you, I would advise to scour Erowid and similar places for proper reports on these experiences. Smoked extracts of salvia divinorum, and smoked or preferably vaped simple tryptamines – DMT, DPT, etc. – can facilitate your journey. I should mention that not everyone has great recall of their experiences when they make it this far out. Some people hardly remember anything at all, except for the fact that it was a Crazy Experience.
And then there is the real gem:
The Realm of Quiet Understanding
This is the understanding you can arrive at through repeated exposure to these realms, either through psychedelic experience or through some other pathway. It is the equanimous understanding that none of these realms, even the one we normally inhabit, have any inherent reality to them. They are all mediated by ways of seeing, by lenses assumed or removed, perspectives appropriated or abandoned. As intimated at the end of the treatment of the Higher Realm of Inner Work, sometimes all that separates heaven from hell is a momentary non-act of faith: a profound surrender into grace.
Being lost in the behavioral flowers of a tree referred to in the Lower Realm of Inner Work treatment is not something inherently bad, it’s just possible to recognize this as a (sometimes desperately) constricted state of being. That single recognition will instantly create more space around it, temporarily loosening the habit pattern that gave rise to it, but such is not any better or worse than remaining lost in the constriction, at least not from any ultimate viewpoint. From the point of view of compassion, of course value judgments can start being formed, which become more and more crystallized as one descends the ladder of consciousness.
In Buddhism, there is an apparent dichotomy between Samsara and Nirvana. Samsara is the world of bondage, suffering, and ignorance that we all inhabit, whether we know it or not. Nirvana can be thought of as the great unbinding, extinction, or release, bringing ultimate freedom to the practitioner. These realms are not located in space and time, and they aren’t always considered to be properly separate. In certain interpretations of this duality, they can be conceived of as two sides of the same coin, determined by the presence or absence of identification with the so-called three poisons: sense desire, aversion, and delusion. Stated rather glibly, and interpreted to suit the Realm of Quiet Understanding: suffering or no suffering, it doesn’t matter; all there is to experience is the voluntary play of free awareness, regardless of the level of understanding of the experiencer.
Anyway, coming back to this Realm of Quiet Understanding, what starts to become clear as this understanding develops, is that anyone can find their own path to greater freedom, simply by trusting in their inner guidance. If being identified with ego, or with some perceived hurt or fear, is seen to be neither good nor bad, there open up the innate longings for peace, tranquility and happiness that come with the letting go of drama. Identifying with those longings, instead of with the drama, becomes a reliable way to realizing them more and more in your actual life.
Paradoxically then, accepting that being in a constricted state is not a bad thing opens you up to leaving that state behind and dismantling what spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls the “pain body.” Experientially realizing the oneness of all experience allows you to let go of the judging of experiences, and sets the mind on its natural trajectory towards more and more lightness. One way to look at the Ego is as a temporary assembly of greater and smaller constrictions that are meant to defend some vulnerable inner core. These defence mechanisms are exposed to be completely ridiculous, once you clearly see that the vulnerability of that inner core is in fact its greatest strength, and needs no protection at all.
In fact, the defence mechanisms are like calluses that have formed around imaginary threats, and are no longer needed by one who understands. All that is required now is to allow those calluses to soften with time, although they can also be cut out, or soaked in warm water and then filed down, or a myriad of other techniques that have become available in the collective experience of humanity to make the skin smooth and soft again.
There are many ways to get to the Realm of Quiet Understanding. Life After Ego Death explores and offers a number of practices that have been successful in leading people there.