Psychedelic substances are, no doubt, powerful tools. It makes sense then, that just like any mechanical power tool, they should be approached with caution, mindfulness, and care. Promoting psychedelics and their incredible potential for psychotherapy and psychospiritual growth is a natural inclination for people who’ve had positive and long-lasting beneficial experiences, or even beaten lifelong addictions with them. But it’s also critically important to balance the benefits of psychedelics with their dangers, encouraging a holistic and nuanced dialogue rather than a myopic and unbalanced one. Only by understanding the possible pitfalls of psychedelics can you learn to navigate a psychedelic experience and get the most from it.
Physical and Mental Safety
Any discussion about avoiding the dangers of psychedelics must start with the most obvious concern — safety. Even experienced psychonauts can get this part wrong, and a minor slip in mindfulness when approaching a psychedelic experience can lead to all kinds of terrible outcomes, including death. That might sound like a buzzkill, but it’s an important point to drill home, and one that the most experienced psychedelic users on the planet — indigenous shamans — will often attest to. Do not take these substances lightly, and respect the fact that you are working with powerful medicine that can be both mentally and physically dangerous in the wrong circumstances.
Being mindful of psychedelic safety includes being confident in the makeup, purity, and dosage of what you’re taking and being very intentional about your “set and setting” — the physical and mental space you create for yourself. You should also be absolutely sure that you’re not at risk for serious adverse events such as triggering latent mental disorders, catalyzing harmful drug interactions, or over-stimulating an already unhealthy heart. Websites like Erowid are a great resource to educate yourself about the risks associated with any psychedelic substance, and ideally, you should always seek advice from a medical professional before undertaking any psychedelic journey.
It’s also important to note that even if all physical safety measures are taken, if someone is not mentally prepared for their psychedelic journey or finds themselves suddenly overwhelmed in an unsupportive setting, the experience can actually cause mental trauma rather than release it. Think of undergoing a psychedelic journey like going on an extreme backcountry camping trip — it can be an astounding and wonderful experience, but if you’re not properly prepared, you’re putting yourself at major risk.
After someone has undergone one or a few psychedelic experiences, it’s very easy, even natural, to become so overwhelmed with awe at the truth and beauty that they’ve witnessed that they feel the need to share their perspective. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can easily slide into a counterproductive cycle where the newly initiated individual starts to almost look down on people who’ve not had psychedelic experiences, thinks that their new “enlightenment” is lasting and final, and recklessly promotes psychedelic use to everyone without regard to safety. Nearly every experienced psychonaut has gone through this to some degree, but it’s a bad idea to get stuck in this modality. It can actually inhibit self-growth and harm the promotion of responsible psychedelic use.
Just because one has been to the proverbial mountaintop and experienced oneness with the universe does not mean that the goal of self-realization and growth has ended. It just means that you’ve had a primary mystical experience, which is invaluable but also transitory. The true work really begins after this moment, for people’s lives are not built by what they think or believe or have seen, but by what they actually do. In many ways, the moment of initial psychedelic realization is just the beginning of a lifetime of work integrating the lessons learned, and putting in the work to bring forth that realization into their daily lives.
Secondly, suggesting that everyone on the planet smoke DMT or take LSD is not the best way to advocate for psychedelics in this day and age. Many great spiritual teachers, artists, and changemakers throughout history never took a psychedelic in their life, and it’s important to balance one’s personal experiences with psychedelics with the understanding that there are multiple ways up the proverbial mountain. Some of today’s contemporary leaders in the psychedelic movement have lamented that Timothy Leary, who seemed to be stuck in this phase of recklessly promoting psychedelics to everyone, had an extremely polarizing effect on how our culture came to understand psychedelics. It could even be argued that Leary’s flagrant advocacy played a part in the huge crackdown and illegalization of drugs after the 1960s, which certainly was not helpful to the cause of bringing psychedelics and an understanding of their great value into Western culture.
The Dangers of Psychedelic Overuse
Getting to the top of the proverbial mountain through a positive psychedelic experience can be so glorious that one often has a natural tendency to want to go back again and again. But take it from many who have traveled down this road — constantly using psychedelics is not the way to secure your footing in a state of enlightened awareness or freedom from your past.
Even the great psychedelic advocate Terence McKenna became wary of psychedelic use after a bad trip on mushrooms, a fact that only came to light after his passing through his brother Dennis’s book Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss. When you overuse psychedelics, not only do you put yourself at risk for creating new traumatic experiences and disconnecting dangerously from reality, but such a practice doesn’t respect the immensely rich messages that psychedelics bestow, or the deep and often long process of integration after the experience is over. The famous quote from Alan Watts regarding psychedelic use — “once you get the message, hang up the phone” — is a good reminder. The goal of using psychedelics for personal growth is not to have the psychedelic phone permanently attached to one’s face — it’s to live your life according to that message. That could mean periodic use for some people, but for most it means rare and sparing usage of these powerful tools.
Taking a Balanced Approach
By far, the best examples we have of sustainable and healthy psychedelic usage comes from indigenous cultures who used these medicines successfully for thousands of years, and contemporary syncretic spiritual traditions that revolve around their use. As we seek to build a well-informed and lasting culture around responsible psychedelic use, these societies are our greatest teachers, and while they differ from each other in many ways, what they share is that these powerful medicines were always treated with the utmost respect, used with specific intention and often sparingly, and never abused recreationally. Self-growth, self-realization, and healing is the goal — psychedelics are a powerful way to assist in that sacred journey, but they are a means, not the end.