In the face of the ongoing mental health and overdose crises, vigorous study of the therapeutic value of psychedelic compounds is needed now more than ever. But this doesn’t mean we should overlook the inherent value in studying the effects these compounds have on our belief systems, and how they can result in cosmic internal shifts that often turn our realities completely upside down, and for the better.
The psychedelic research centre launched last year at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland has made a name for itself with several studies of psilocybin, the key ingredient in magic mushrooms. A recent study conducted there sought to determine how often an experience with another psychedelic, N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, more commonly known as DMT, resulted in a profound experience with entities or spirits—and whether or not those experiences led to some sort of belief in a higher power.
What the fuck is DMT?
DMT is a hallucinogenic tryptamine that is found predominantly among plant species in South America and Mexico, including the Banisteriopsis caapi, one of two plants used to make the potent psychedelic brew, ayahuasca. It can also be produced in a laboratory, and naturally occurs in the body’s cerebrospinal fluid. In Canada, it’s a Schedule III substance, making it illegal to possess or traffic, while in the United States, it’s a Schedule I substance. It presents as a white or pale yellow powder and can be smoked or vaporized. While psychedelic plant medicines such as magic mushrooms, san pedro, ayahuasca, and peyote produce long-lasting experiences or “trips” that can sometimes continue for 12 hours or more, DMT produces an incredibly powerful, fast-acting but short experience, generally in the 15 to 45 minute range depending on the amount consumed.
What happens when you take it?
Thanks to the work of Rick Strassman, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico who was first approved to study the substance in the 1990s, the DMT trip has been characterized in a particular way: that upon inhaling, DMT quickly propels the user into realms filled with kaleidoscopic visuals, which are often inhabited by otherworldly beings such as aliens, elves, angels, and other spirits. Sometimes these encounters involve being poked, prodded, and touched. Other times, these beings may carry important messages. He details his research in his book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, noting that for his 60 volunteers, the substance consistently resulted in mystical experiences.
I’ll be the first to admit that while I’ve certainly had spiritual, profoundly life-altering experiences under the influence of DMT, I have not (yet?) encountered aliens, elves, or angels. In truth, I considered Strassman’s summation of a DMT trip to be the benchmark, and before my first experience, I anticipated meeting some sort of strange beings. When I didn’t, I wondered if I’d done a large enough dose, or perhaps if I’d missed some sort of portal to the place Strassman and everyone else was always talking about.
In my excitement to delve into a world outside this one, I wasn’t prepared for DMT to take me into the one that existed in my own subconscious. (But more on that later.)
Mystical, spiritual, and profoundly positive
The new study out of Johns Hopkins, conducted by adjunct associate professor Alan Davis, dwarfs Strassman’s work when it comes to sample size, and seems to dispel the idea that the only beings you’ll encounter on a DMT trip are mystical ones. Where just 60 people participated in Strassman’s research, Davis’ study is the largest-ever survey of individuals who have used DMT, with 2,561 respondents. The purpose of the survey was to characterize the subjective phenomena, interpretation, and persisting changes that people attribute to experiences with entities while on DMT. Each respondent completed a survey about their single-most memorable encounter with such an entity.
Davis and his team were surprised to find that the variety of responses were very different from those described by Strassman. Rather than elves or aliens, respondents most often used the words “being” or “guide” to describe the entities they met while tripping. Most reported positive experiences, and used words like “joy”, “trust”, “love”, and “kindness” to describe their sense of what had occurred.
“More [of] what was reported was this benevolent, loving, joyful, spirit or being that was there to communicate and relay information in some way,” said Davis in an interview with New Atlas writer Rich Haridy.
Results from the survey show that a whopping 80 per cent of respondents said their experience altered their fundamental concept of reality, while 65 per cent said the experience felt more real than everyday life. While 55 per cent said they identified as atheist or agnostic prior to the encounter on DMT, just 26 per cent continued to identify as such following their experience. And where 36 per cent said they believed in a higher power, God, or universal divinity beforehand, the number increased to 58 per cent after their encounter on the drug. Additionally, 72 per cent said the entity continued to exist when the DMT trip ended.
“What’s fascinating to us is that people are describing themselves and their religious, or belief orientation, in one way, and there is a fundamental difference after the experience in terms of how they view the universe,” said Davis. “And that’s pretty remarkable to us that an experience can have that kind of profound shift and change.”
“They went from a firm belief in nothing, to potentially a belief in something, and their experiences were so visceral and real that it couldn’t not change their understanding of their place in the universe,” he said.
Davis and his team concluded that while more research is needed to determine the causality and mechanisms behind these experiences, the “ontological shock”, or the questioning of one’s worldview associated with a DMT trip, “may play an important role in the enduring positive life changes in attitudes, moods, and behaviour attributed to these experiences.”
On ontological shock, and my most memorable DMT experience
On a personal note, reading Davis’ work provided me with a sense of relief. I’d been so enamoured by the idea of encountering something outside of myself while under the influence of DMT that I half-wondered if my trip inside made me some sort of outlier. This isn’t to say that my most memorable experience with the substance wasn’t profound. Rather than getting lost in some world conjured up based on my understanding of Strassman’s work, I came face to face with my own “divine being”, my higher self, the God in me—and was quickly forced to question my own worldview, and my place on this tiny blue dot in space.
About a year and a half ago, I was invited to what a few friends have come to call a “sacred smoke” ceremony. There, DMT would be administered as facilitators played crystal bowls, gongs, flute, and even a didgeridoo while the rest of us journeyed deep through the sound waves with a mix of DMT and cannabis honey oil (an effective way to kill the unpleasant taste of DMT). Having never experienced DMT before and being well aware of the musical talent my friends possessed, I accepted the invitation without hesitation and soon enough, I found myself sitting in a room with a dozen or so other individuals, waiting for the sound bath to begin and the pipe to be passed around.
My turn arrived soon enough and within moments of a final inhale and a deep holding of the breath, I felt myself beginning to dissolve into what can only be described as a state of sheer bliss. I closed my eyes to see stunning depictions of sacred geometry, while the people in my peripherals appeared through closed eyes as white balls of light. But before I could get comfortable, I heard a tiny but judgemental voice emerge from the back of my mind:
“Hey, loser! What the fuck are you doing here, sitting in a circle with all of these dirty hippies, listening to weird music doing highly illegal substances?”
I realized pretty quickly that my human mind wanted desperately to sabotage what was about to happen. In a flash, an entity appeared, though she looked nothing like what I’d read about while diving down internet rabbit holes: she was me, but bigger—stronger, more compassionate, more understanding, although certainly maintaining a strong sense of “take no shit”. This, I figured, was my higher self, the part of me that was closest to “source” (or a higher power, or God, or whatever).
Before shitty little me could respond with more snark, Big Me had her burned at the stake. All of a sudden little me was surrounded by fire, screaming bloody murder and dying an incredibly painful death. After being reduced to ashes, I watched from my mind’s eye as Big Me emerged riding a steamroller, and crushed the smouldering pile—laughing the entire time—until little me was just a few charred crumbs. Finally, Big Me picked up the remains, rolled what was left of little me into a joint, and lit up.
Nearly 18 months later, and I am revisited by the divine entity I encountered that evening every single time I feel myself being compelled to place judgement on something or someone. She has a gentle way of reminding me that no matter where I go, I ought to leave my judgement at the door.
While it didn’t alter my belief in a higher power, it did change the way I thought about myself. In many ways it felt more real than reality itself, and just like Davis said, it forced me to reassess my place in the universe.
As research on psychedelic compounds continues, I am eager to see what scientists are able to discover about the influence of our subconscious minds on these sorts of experiences, and particularly what other rigid belief systems we might be able to move away from. Perhaps, in being able to alter our belief systems associated with spirituality, we can also use DMT to alter the negative belief systems we have about ourselves.
Editor, Inside the Jar
Hippie. Tripper. Grappler. Author. Anarchist
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Whatever. We. Fucking. Want.
It’s expensive. It’s impractical. It makes everything photographed on it look like it took place in the 1970s. So why bother with film?
A few years ago I planned a solo road trip to Haida Gwaii. I drove up in my admittedly unequipped Toyota Echo (thankfully the weather cooperated on my 16-hour drive) and spent the days around my spring birthday staying with a friend in the village of Skidegate.
I took four cameras: two digital SLRs, an instant camera, and a Canon AE-1, circa 1976. It had been my dad’s, and was the first camera I’d ever used. I’d shot hundreds of rolls of black-and-white film with it in high school but for several years it had joined the other vintage cameras I’d collected on a shelf in my bedroom. I figured a trip which I intended to photograph heavily required a little bit of variety, so I dusted it off and shelled out $50 for five rolls of Fujicolor Pro 400H 35mm film for the first time since I’d studied photography in college.
“The more important thing is, we wanted to give people access to the psilocybin experience—and to confirm, or not—that all these things that had happened to us were really happening to us; that it really did seem to open up the doorways to some very strange places. We were looking for affirmation or confirmation of our own experiences.”