Using Psychedelics Wisely
Myron J. Stolaroff
A veteran researcher explains how
psychedelics can be used to give
results. From GNOSIS, No. 26, Winter 1993*.
My wife Jean and I had driven several miles up the mountain to
an elevation of 6000 feet a few miles south of Mount Whitney in
California. We were about to meet Franklin Merrell-Wolff, author
of the book Pathways through to Space, an impressively
articulate and detailed description of a person entering a state
of enlightenment and savoring it over several months.
When we were ushered into his private office, we found ourselves
before an outstanding personage who radiated a marvelous glow.
When we had talked for a few minutes and I felt sufficiently at
home, I spoke of our research work, telling him that we had spent
three and a half years administering LSD, sometimes in conjunction
with mescaline, to 350 research subjects and had published our
findings in medical journals.
"My oh my!" he said, looking at us with consternation.
"I hope you haven't used these drugs yourselves."
We admitted that we had. He continued, "According to X"
(here he mentioned an Indian sage whose name I do not remember),
"it will take you seven incarnations to recover from the
damage of taking such substances!"
Naturally I was upset, but I didn't think of the appropriate reply
until we were driving back down the hill: "Never underestimate
the grace of God!"
There is no question that psychedelic substances are remarkable
graces. The farther one can reach into the vastness to be explored,
the more one realizes how powerful these materials are. There
seems to be no end to the levels of awareness that can be realized
by those who use them to explore their psyches with integrity
The great value in these chemicals is that, in some way still
not scientifically explained, they dissolve the boundaries to
the unconscious mind. They give us access to our repressed and
forgotten material, to the Shadow that C.G. Jung so effectively
dealt with, to the archetypes of humanity, to an enormous range
of levels of thought, and to the wellspring of creativity and
mystical experience that Jung called the collective unconscious.
At the heart of the unconscious is what many experience as the
source of life itself, and which some call God. Those who have
experienced this describe it as a wondrous, ineffable source of
light and energy that infuses all of creation, embracing all wisdom
and radiating a vast, unending, and ever-constant love. Immersion
in this is the essence of the mystical experience and produces
what the great mystics have described as the state of unity or
oneness. Such union is the culmination of all seeking, all desire;
it is the most cherished of all experiences of which man is capable.
Not all who ingest these substances can count on such revelations.
In fact, psychedelics are powerful agents and can be misused.
It must be remembered that they help reveal the unconscious, and
most of us have made its contents unconscious for very specific
reasons. We may not welcome the appearance of repressed, painful
feelings, or of evidence that our values and lifestyles might
be considerably improved. Nor is it always easy to accept the
spaciousness of our being, our immense potential, and the responsibility
that these entail. We may also refuse to believe that we are entitled
to so much beauty and joy without paying any price other than
To assure a rewarding outcome, let's look at some factors that
should be taken into consideration when using these materials.
I must add here that in no way am I encouraging the use of illegal
substances. I do hope, however, that greater understanding of
these materials will help restore an intelligent policy that will
make further research possible. Here are some things that will
help ensure beneficial results:
SET AND SETTING
Set and setting have been widely recognized as the two most important
factors in undertaking a psychedelic experience. Of these, set
has the greatest influence.
As the drug opens the door to the unconscious, huge spectrums
of possibilities of experience present themselves. Just how one
steers through this vast maze depends mostly upon set. Set includes
the contents of the personal unconscious, which is essentially
the record of all one's life experience. It also includes one's
walls of conditioning, which determine the freedom with which
one can move through various vistas. Another important aspect
of set consists of one's values, attitudes, and aspirations. These
will influence the direction of attention and determine how one
will deal with the psychic material encountered.
In fact, one can learn a great deal by accepting and reconciling
oneself with uncomfortable material. Resisting this discomfort,
on the other hand, can greatly intensify the level of pain, leading
to disturbing, unsatisfactory experiences, or even psychotic attempts
at escape. This latter dynamic is largely responsible for the
medical profession's view of these materials as psychotomimetic.
On the other hand, surrender, acceptance, gratitude, and appreciation
can result in continual opening, expansion, and fulfillment.
Setting, or the environment in which the experience takes place,
can also greatly influence the experience, since subjects are
often very suggestible under psychedelics. Inspiring ritual, a
beautiful natural setting, stimulating artwork, and interesting
objects to examine can focus one's attention on rewarding areas.
Most important of all is an experienced, compassionate guide who
is very familiar with the process. His mere presence establishes
a stable energy field that helps the subject remain centered.
The guide can be very helpful should the subject get stuck in
uncomfortable places, and can ask intelligent questions that will
help resolve difficulties, as well as suggesting fruitful directions
of exploration that the subject might have otherwise overlooked.
The user will also find that simply sharing what is happening
with an understanding listener will produce greater clarity and
comfort. Finally, a good companion knows that the best guide is
one's own inner being, which should not be interfered with unless
help is genuinely needed and sought.
This is extremely important. Those who earnestly seek knowledge
and deeply appreciate life in all its forms will do well. Yet
certain characteristics of psychedelics make them very popular
for recreational use. The most attractive of these is their great
enhancement of sensual responses, which offer heightened perception,
amplification of beauty and meaning, and intensified sensual gratification.
Psychedelics can also generate a great sense of closeness among
participants, especially in a group setting. While I am convinced
that one of the great cosmic commands is "Enjoy," there
are traps in using these substances purely for recreation. The
first is that a person seeking the delights of the senses may
find himself overwhelmed by the eruption of repressed unconscious
material without knowing how to deal with it. Another danger is
that constant pleasure-seeking without giving anything back to
life can distort the personality and ultimately produce more discomfort.
The safe, sure way to rewarding outcomes with psychedelics is
through intelligent, well-informed use.
For the serious spiritual seeker, or for that matter anyone seeking
knowledge, the single most important characteristic is honesty.
This means the courage to look at whatever is presented by the
deep mind, the ability to admit one's shortcomings when they become
apparent, and the determination to change one's behavior in line
with the truth one has experienced.
Experts in the field now generally agree that it is wise to conduct
psychedelic explorations within the framework of a spiritual discipline
or growth program that will continually call attention to fundamental
values and goals. A good discipline will outline a body of ethics
for personal behavior that will support the changes required.
Good ethics will also help us stay clear about our objectives,
and will keep the door open to increasing depths of experience.
Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that the more we are prepared
to pass on to others whatever spiritual largess we have accumulated,
the more we will be given.
For myself, I found training in Tibetan Buddhist meditation a
potent adjunct to psychedelic exploration. In learning to hold
my mind empty, I became aware that other levels of reality would
more readily manifest. It was only in absolute stillness, accompanied
by a special, highly developed quality of listening, that many
subtle but extremely valuable nuances of reality appeared. While
I achieved this to some extent in ordinary practice, I found this
effect to be greatly amplified while under the influence of a
psychedelic substance. This in turn intensified my daily meditation
PSYCHEDELICS AS WAY-SHOWERS
The role of psychedelics is often misunderstood. Many feel that
having had wonderful experiences, they now have the answers and
are somehow changed. And no doubt in many respects they are. But
users often overlook the fact that there are usually heavy walls
of conditioning and ignorance separating the surface mind from
the core of our being. It is a blessing that psychedelics can
set aside these barriers and give access to our real Self. But
unless one is committed to the changes indicated, old habits of
personality can rapidly reestablish themselves.
At this point many feel that repeating the experience will maintain
the exalted state. It may, but most often real change requires
hard work and dedicated effort. Unfortunately this is not always
clear during the experience itself; it has merely pointed the
way and shown what is possible. If we like what we see, it is
now up to us to bring about the changes indicated.
There is a grace period following profound psychedelic experiences
when changes can be rapidly made. At this time one is infused
with the wonder and power of the new information. Moreoverand
this is an area where some valuable research can be donethe
drug experience releases a great deal of bodily and psychic armoring
that is tied to our neuroses. This rejuvenation is quite noticeable
after a good psychedelic experience, when, without the dragging
weight of physical habit patterns, behavior can be more readily
On the other hand, if you make no effort to change, old habits
rapidly reassert themselves, and you find yourself sliding back
into your previous state. In fact, it can be worse than before,
because now you know that things can be better and are disappointed
to find yourself mucking around in the same old garbage.
Another factor makes this process even more uncomfortable. A lot
of the energy formerly tied up in repressed material is now released.
This energy may be used quite fruitfully to expand the boundaries
of your being to the new dimensions you have experienced. But
if you return to old patterns of behavior, you now have more energy
to reinforce them, making life more difficult. For this reason,
these experiences must not be taken lightly, but with serious
DEALlNG WITH THE SHADOW
As Jung indicated, the Shadow holds all the material that we have
pushed aside so we can hide from ourselves. Unfortunately, it
also contains much of our energy, and as long as it is unconscious,
it exerts a powerful influence on our behavior without our knowing
it. Furthermore, Shadow material is responsible for most of the
difficulties humans create in the world. We project our Shadow
onto others, believe those others to be the source of our difficulties,
and seek refuge from them rather than taking responsibility in
our own hands. Consequently we must resolve Shadow material if
we are to develop. If this were accomplished on a widespread basis,
it would be a major benefit for the world.
Jung describes human development as the process of "making
the unconscious conscious." Psychedelics, particularly in
low doses, can be an extremely effective tool in this process.
The bulk of my experience is with the phenethylamine compounds,
which remained legal longer than the standard psychedelics such
as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin. Whereas a full dose of a phenethylamine
like 2C-T-2 or 2C-T-7 might be 20 milligrams, a low dose would
be ten or twelve milligrams, or roughly equivalent to 25-50 micrograms
The most infallible guide to Shadow material is our uncomfortable
feelings. Many do not like to use low doses because these feelings
come to the surface. Rather than experience them, they use larger
doses to transcend them. But these uncomfortable feelings are
precisely what we must resolve to free ourselves from the Shadow,
gain strength and energy, and function more comfortably and competently
in the world. By using smaller amounts and being willing to focus
our full attention on whatever feelings arise and breathe through
them, we find that these feelings eventually dissolve, often with
fresh insight and understanding of our personal dynamics. The
release of such material permits an expansion of awareness and
energy. If we work persistently to clear away repressed areas,
we can enter the same sublime states that are available with larger
doseswith an important additional gain. Having resolved our
uncomfortable feelings, we are in a much better position to maintain
a high state of clarity and functioning in day-to-day life.
I would also like to add a word about frequency: Individuals vary
greatly in their frequency of use of these materials. Some are
satisfied with an overwhelming experience which they feel is good
for a lifetime. Others wish to renew their acquaintance with these
areas once or twice a year. Still others are interested in frequent
explorations to continually push their knowledge forward. Regardless
of the frequency, it is wise to make sure that the previous experience
has been well integrated before embarking on the next one. Early
in one's contact with these substances, where there is a wealth
of new experience, this may take several months. As one becomes
more experienced, the integration time grows shorter, and the
interval between trials may be shortened.
Many stop the use of psychedelics when they feel they have learned
what they wished. But often it is likely that they halt because
they have hit a deeply repressed, painful area that is heavily
defended. The issue goes beyond purely personal material, however.
One is unlikely to reach full realization without awareness, not
merely of one's own pain and suffering, but of that of all mankind.
This may help explain the Dark Night of the Soul, which is the
final barrier to mystical union described by Evelyn Underhill
in her classic book Mysticism. Since we are one, we must
not only confront the personal Shadow, but the Shadow of all humanity.
We can do this more readily when we discover the ample love that
is available to dissolve all Shadow material.
FREElNG CONSTRlCTED AREAS
There is another way in which psychedelics can serve the serious
seeker. It often happens that those pursuing rigorous spiritual
disciplines achieve elevated states by pushing aside or walling
off certain aspects of behavior. With honest use, psychedelics
will not permit such areas to remain hidden, but will insist upon
their surfacing. One then experiences the great relief of being
in touch with all aspects of one's being. The joy and thrill of
being totally alive come from having complete access to all of
THE TRAINED USER
There appears to be a cosmic law that says that giving our complete
attention to an object, image, or idea with constancy, patience,
and acceptance will allow its different attributes to unfold.
Psychedelics greatly accelerate this process. To operate most
effectively, the observer must have developed the ability to hold
his mind steady so he can watch the process develop. Large doses
can push one so hard that it is most difficult to do this. Therefore
the best results are achieved by a "trained user"a
person who has learned to manage high doses of psychedelics, or
who has learned to hold his mind steady enough to observe his
inner process competently. As a user clears up his "inner
stuff," he gains more freedom in directing his experience.
At this stage, higher doses can be profitably used to penetrate
deeper into the nature of Reality.
Interestingly, this concept of the trained user does not appear
in the literature. But it is precisely the trained user who can
best take advantage of the unfathomed range of wisdom and understanding
contained in the far reaches of the mind. There seems to be no
limit to the dimensions of understanding that can be experienced
by the explorer who has the courage, integrity, and skill to navigate
them. With integrity, and with the support of appropriate disciplines
and friends, one can bring back a great deal for the betterment
of oneself and mankind.
Are psychedelics necessary? Can't these same explorations be conducted
by those who have mastered the skills of meditation? No doubt
they canwith an enormous investment of time and effort. But
it is unlikely that many Westerners will be willing to make such
a commitment. For Western seekers, whose spiritual practice must
usually be integrated with making a living, the proper use of
psychedelics can considerably accelerate the process. However,
it is not a path for everyone. Choice should be based on full
knowledge of the factors involved.
Psychedelics are not a shortcut, as it is of little value to sidetrack
important experiences. If enlightenment requires resolution of
unconscious material (and my personal experience indicates that
it does), those who aspire to such achievement must carefully
consider the pace and intensity with which they are willing to
encounter this vast range of dynamics. The psychedelic path, while
much more intense than many other disciplines, is in a sense easier
because it often provides an earlier and more profound contact
with the numinous. Such contact inspires commitment and opens
the door to more grace in surmounting uncomfortable material.
If our commitment is truly to the well-being and happiness of
all sentient beings, then it is reasonable to study all useful
tools for accomplishing these ends. Psychedelics, used with good
motivation, skill, and integrity, can contribute much toward easing
the pain and suffering of the world while giving access to wisdom
and compassion for spiritual development.
The author has worked for many years in the field of psychedelic
research. Between 1960 and 1970 he headed the International
Foundation for Advanced Study, a research group conducting clinical
studies with LSD and mescaline.