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platforms of psychedelic experience

It can be hard to make sense of the mysterious experiences and unfamiliar realities we are plunged into in deep psychedelic states. For this reason it can be useful to have some kind of map of the psychedelic terrain.

In his book LSD and the Mind of the Universe, Christopher Bache follows Stan Grof in using three categories to distinguish different states of consciousness that are accessed in psychedelic and holotropic breathwork sessions. Bache calls these “platforms of experience”. The book is a treasure trove of theory for psychedelic explorers, and this post will be the third in what has unwittingly turned out to be a series of blog posts based on concepts drawn from it. 

In this post, I will give a little background on these terms and then outline the three levels based on Bache’s explanation. Bache distinguishes between three “platforms”, which he terms  psychic, subtle and causal.

The terms

ken wilber atman project

The terms psychic, subtle, and causal were first coined by Ken Wilber in his 1980 book, The Atman Project. Wilber drew from Hindu and Buddhist sources and used them to label the evolutionary stepping stones on the psycho-spiritual journey. Wilber’s model, which also included non-duality, had four stages and culminated in non-dual spiritual enlightenment. In his outline, Bache does not include non-dual as a separate state as he found it to be an inherent feature of causal consciousness. 

Stan Grof’s description was phenomenological rather than hierarchical. He didn’t use the terms to describe an ordered sequence of  levels on a path as Wilber did, but rather to distinguish coexisting dimensions of consciousness, each with its own characteristics. 

Consciousness = Reality

These different levels of consciousness allow one to experience the corresponding aspects of reality. For example, a psychic level of consciousness allows one to explore psychic levels of reality; subtle level consciousness grants one access to subtle levels of reality; and causal, likewise. The value of entering these states is that they allow us to explore different levels of non-physical reality. As the late great Boston psychonaut Kilindi Iyi said of psilocybin, ‘it is, in its first and foremost principle, a tool of exploration’. 

Before beginning, it should be noted that Bache’s explanations accept the premise of reincarnation. I am not presenting this as truth, but write here to share ideas. 

Psychic level

At the psychic level one leaves physical reality and enters a spiritual realm. There remains, however, the sense of a separate self, as one’s conditioning from space time carries over. The experience is therefore that of being a separate spiritual entity amongst other discarnate entities. Our experience is still that of ourselves, but without our body. I would still be me, John, but disembodied, my ‘discarnate self’. Psychic level experience has a soul-centric quality to it, meaning that one will experience the soul, or ‘psyche’ of their current life.

Subtle level

At the subtle level one perceives the larger realities and more fundamental building blocks that make up life. One still has an experience of separateness, but the separate parts are larger and more basic than at the psychic level. If our separate selves are the individual rooms of a skyscraper, the parts we experience in subtle consciousness are like the steel girders of the building. We can begin to see the deeper architecture of what we call existence.

One may experience the collective consciousness of our species, or even of other species, and the archetypical forces that make up space time. Going deeper than the individual self, one may open to an experience of the spiritual self that reincarnates as many different forms through different lifetimes.

Here is a line from Bache that made me laugh:

“I’ve always thought that “subtle” was a strange name for this level of consciousness because there is really nothing subtle about it at all. Quite the opposite, in fact”.

Causal level

The first signature of causal consciousness is Oneness. Though Oneness may show up in one way or another at the other levels, as it is a fundamental truth of existence, oneness takes on another quality at the causal level. There is an experience of the universe moving as a single entity. There is no way of perceiving this Oneness from outside of it as it is the whole thing. Experience of Oneness at this level is the totality of existence perceiving itself, so any sense of separation is gone. Light, as with Oneness, may also show up in other levels, but is more refined at the casual level. 

Maps of experience

These platforms of experience form just one cosmological map and there may be many other ways of mapping spiritual (non-physical) experience. The Psychedelic Experience, a manual by Leary et al. based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead was another map of consciousness, and I I have also heard that the Bhagavad Gita can be used.

Ultimately though, the map is not the territory. I believe Bache said it perfectly:

“In the end, all these categories are only labels of approximation and convenience. One may divide the spectrum of spiritual reality in many ways […] it would be foolish to think we could do justice to the vast expanse of spiritual reality by using just three or six categories”.

Final Thoughts

Without any kind of frame for understanding, the new and at times intensely unfamiliar and alien realities we can visit in sessions can be disorienting, even once we have returned to normal consciousness. We may not know what to do with these experiences, and without sufficient context or points of reference and this can lead to feelings of bemusement or confusion.

This was certainly the case for me after my first DMT experience, and to a degree, my first LSD experiences. With no real place for these types of spiritual experiences in a culture where reductive materialism is a prevailing worldview, I found solace in Buddhist texts, which helped me to integrate these non-ordinary experiences and offered instructions on how to navigate them.

For explorers heading into new territories, having some kind of map or frame can be of great use. With this in mind, I encourage psychonauts to mentally try ideas like these on for size when embarking on a path of deep exploration

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cosmic psychedelic exploration

In his book LSD and the Mind of the Universe, philosophy professor and extreme psychonaut Christopher Bache shares his journey of cosmic discovery through an extended series of high dose LSD sessions over the course of two decades. In this book he talks about a psychedelic protocol which he unintentionally developed on his path: Psychedelic exploration

LSD mind of the universe bache book

Psychedelic exploration, as Bache calls this new protocol, is distinct from the two therapeutic modalities currently used widely in the West today: psycholytic therapy, and psychedelic therapy.

Before talking about psychedelic exploration I will give an outline of these first terms.

Psycholytic Therapy

  • Low dose (75–300 mcg LSD, typically 200 mcg)
  • Sessions typically at one-week or two-week intervals
  • 15–100 sessions in a course (on average ~40 sessions)

Therapeutic processes, such as emotional abreaction and catharsis, are intensified in a psycholytic therapy session. This calls for a flexible and dynamic relationship between the therapist and the patient. The lower dose, as compared to psychedelic therapy, allows for a more gentle opening of the psyche allowing the work to be done in layers and gradually over a longer time frame.

Psychedelic Therapy

  • High dose (300–500 mcg LSD)
  • Sessions typically at one-week or two-week intervals
  • 1–3 sessions in a course
  • Sometimes known as the “single overwhelming dose” approach

Awareness is much more powerfully magnified than in psycholytic therapy. The high dose is intended to blast the journeyer straight past the psychodynamic level of consciousness to a spiritual experience of ego dissolution. This gives them a new viewpoint, and therefore a novel perspective on their personal problems. 

There is little to no verbal interaction between the patient and therapist (or sitter/guide). The patient typically wears an eye shade and headphones, and their focus is on looking inside, connecting to their inner healing wisdom. This is the standard in psychedelic research today, and its fast track means that it could be thought of as something like ‘the lightning path’ of psychedelics.

Psychedelic Exploration

  • High dose (500–600 mcg LSD)
  • Extended series of sessions over many years

“This is what happens if you push psychedelic therapy as far as you can take it”

When he set out on his journey, Bache intended to do an extended course of psychedelic therapy. His approach thus incorporated practices and procedures of psychedelic therapy such as physical isolation, minimal verbal interaction, and intensely evocative music.

However, when he looked back on his path, he realised that the high number of sessions made it quite distinct from psychedelic therapy. An extended course like this brings with it different experiential opportunities as well as unique challenges that go beyond those encountered in a single or shorter run of sessions. Each session becomes a chapter in its own right of a larger psychedelic journey, as opposed to the chapters being sections of a single session (or trilogy of).

Bache’s course was 73 sessions over 20 years, and he describes it as more of an intense cosmic exploration than a therapeutic enterprise. Rather than a single experience of transcendence, psychedelic exploration is, as he puts it, “an ever-deepening spiral of initiation into the universe.” 

Words of caution

Bache gives his words of warning, saying that anyone considering embarking on a path of psychedelic exploration should think long and hard before doing so. He advises that additional precautions should be taken and that one’s life circumstances and support systems must be stable and strong enough to undertake such a journey.

He shares his challenges in the book, and it is essential reading for anyone considering this route.

The future of psychedelic exploration

I imagine psychedelic research centers like those of Imperial and Johns Hopkins will incorporate this type of work into their research when the time is right. Though there have been a few studies to date exploring the spiritual experience of psychedelics, such as the Marsh Chapel experiment, at present, research is mostly focused on clinical use and therapeutic application. I understand this to be a good entry point for psychedelics into the mainstream, and perhaps a strategic one by some forces in the movement, but I am very excited to see the scope of work broadened to the areas of philosophy and spirituality. Opening up research to these areas will deepen our understanding of these substances and their applications. 

Final Thoughts

The experiences shared by Bache and the frontiers he has crossed both fascinate and excite the adventurer inside me. I believe psychedelic exploration will be adopted by more and more people over the coming decades, and those explorers will be at the forefront of cosmic exploration. Rather than space travel, this is where the far more interesting investigation into the frontiers of exploration and discovery lie for humanity.

This is the path for the true cosmonauts of tomorrow. The information they bring back will greatly add to our understanding of humanity, and beyond that, consciousness and spiritual reality. If those travellers bring back maps of the terrain, and share their findings as systematically and comprehensively as Bache has done, they will greatly contribute to the sum of knowledge, ushering humanity into a new era and the next stage of our evolution.

I wonder what lies beyond humanity. We were not always humans and we won’t always be. On our journey to becoming human we have descended from nothingness to pass through existence as stardust, bacteria, and apes. What is next? I believe psychedelic exploration is a essential catalyst in our journey of learning and evolution.

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I am tweeting my highlights from the book in a thread on twitter here, which includes quotes on the psychedelic ego and spiritual bypassing.

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psychedelics process emotions

You might have heard the advice that it’s best to not take psychedelics when you’re not feeling good. General mainstream advice for DIY users is to ‘wait until you’re in a better place’.

If your aim is to feel good during the session itself, then I would agree: wait until you’re in a better place. But when taking psychedelics for reasons of personal growth or learning, this maxim may be trumped by deeper considerations. 

Trippers With Severe Depression & Anxiety

Two groundbreaking studies have helped bring credibility and prominence to mainstream psychedelics based on the psychedelic experiences of people who would not be considered to be feeling good. At Imperial College London, their landmark study explored using  psilocybin to help  those with treatment-resistant depression, in other words, a persistent depression that many treatments have failed to ameliorate. In another landmark study at Johns Hopkins, psilocybin was shown to alleviate end of life anxiety in terminally ill cancer patients. In both these cases, participants clearly faced challenges in their emotional state.

The ‘set’ of the psychedelic tenet of set and setting generally refers to the mindset of the tripper and is broadly understood as the psychonaut’s internal state. This can include their outlook, how they’re feeling, and their mood.

However, when it comes to having a beneficial session, I would say that mindset is a far broader concept than mood, feelings, or emotional state.

Mindset Beyond Emotional State

As well as feelings and emotions, mindset includes how the experience is framed. How we frame something shapes how we see it: it is our perspective on what we are doing. Is the session billed as a time to have fun? Or is it understood as a rare and precious opportunity for learning? These intentions determine how we approach the session. Is it approached with respect? Is it approached with trust in how the experience may unfold?

Those taking part in the studies I’ve mentioned were prepared accordingly in matters of mindset; you see the psilocybin flight instructions here. Their sessions were not approached as a fun time with friends, but with a formality more akin to that of a ceremony or sesshin. Accordingly, participants were directed to be open to whatever arises, to trust in the experience, and to let go of any preconceived ideas about how the session ‘should’ go.

If the mindset is right, the person adequately prepared, in a safe setting and sufficiently supported during the experience, and with support systems in place for afterwards, and  then I would say that tripping when you’re feeling low can be one of the most useful and dare I say obvious times to trip.

storm sunlight

My Experiences

I have personally taken psychedelics in a session format in some of the more rocky emotional patches of my life. 

One example is the time my parents were separating and I was coming to terms with the fact I would be seeing the home I’d always known being put up for sale. My mood and emotional state at the time was not what would be described as good; I was crying on the train up to do my session. However, I approached the occasion with great respect and formality. The resulting experience provided me with enormous relief and understanding, and I now see it as one of the landmark healing experiences of my life.

I have used psychedelics at various other times when going through bumpy patches and difficult chapters – at times when it might be considered ‘not the best time to trip’.

On these occasions, psychedelics have allowed me to see what was beneath, to really be in touch with my deeper, hidden, often repressed and unconscious thoughts and feelings, and given me a chance to process them.

I have seen shadow parts of myself, parts of myself that I was ashamed of. Some examples include a desire to earn more money, a desire to have more creative control on a project, and a sadness that was hidden. I avoided them because of various unconscious beliefs I held around them: that wanting more money means I’m greedy; that wanting more control means I’m power hungry; and that I shouldn’t feel sad about a certain event because I didn’t do anything wrong. 

The experiences I’m describing helped me to see all of these things and better understand myself. This was the first step towards acknowledging these hidden thoughts and as such, accepting them. Psychedelics have been such honest allies, revealing things inside me that I’ve found hard to accept. 

In every one of these sessions I had rough journeys and difficult experiences, and each time, I have felt so grateful for the opportunity.

These are tools which have helped me tremendously, through good times, but also especially through the bad times. 

 

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Set and setting are two of the biggest contributors in how a psychedelic experience turns out. They are arguably as important as the dose and substance itself and together form the context for the experience.

Set refers to mindset; the persons inner state when they take the drug; their frame of mind, attitude and mood.

Setting refers to the physical environment of the experience. This includes for example; the location or room, the company or trip sitter, and the music.

Setting: The Environment for a Psychedelic Experience

This post will look at setting and why it should be considered carefully when planning a psychedelic experience.

Setting is part of the experience

The environment for any experience is the vehicle in which it is received and can actually be considered a part of the experience itself.  As such, it should not be underestimated in terms of how much influence it can have.

Consider how a frame is used to change the experience of viewing a piece of art. Does it change the piece of art itself? Whether it has a frame around it or not, it is the same piece of visual information hanging on the wall. However, it changes how it is viewed and received. It is part of the experience.

Consider some other experiences and how much the environment or method of delivery influences the experience as a whole:

  • The experience of being in a fancy fine dining restaurant vs. eating in as fast food joint. Consider how the experience is different before you’ve even eaten any food.
  • Seeing a band play at a huge festival with thousands of people singing along, dancing and enjoying themselves vs. seeing a band play in a small half empty room with a handful of disinterested people
  • Taking a drink from a nice glass vs. from a cheap plastic bottle

Setting changes set

Setting can also influence the internal state of someone and their ability to do certain things. Imagine you have some work to do that requires your full focus and concentration.

Now imagine trying to do that work in a hot, noisy and crowded environment. Imagine trying to do it outside on a busy street on a hot day.

Now imagine doing that work in a cool, quiet, and distraction free room. Imagine being at home with an air fan to keep you cool, some noise cancelling headphones playing brain.fm, and an accountability partner to check in with at the end of an hour of work.

Do you think you would have the same level of focus in each scenario? Would the results of the work be the same?

In the scenario of a psychedelic session, setting can be considered to help one navigate their journey more successfully. It is like the difference between trying to steer a ship alone and heavily distracted vs. trying to navigate a ship in peace with someone by your side to support you. Which is more likely to get you to your destination?

Setting & Mood

Setting can have a big influence on how one feels. Taking a psychedelic in a club surrounded by many strangers with loud music and flashing lights is going to be a very different experience to being in a room with soft soothing music, low lighting, a comfortable place to lay down and a trusted friend. The second one will promote feelings of relaxation. In the context of a high-dose psychedelic experience this can be very beneficial to help someone let go more fully.

Creating the setting can be considered as creating the atmosphere or the ambience for a session.

Factors to consider when creating a setting

  • Sound
  • Music
  • Lighting
  • Art
  • Items/Decoration
  • Altar
  • Clothes
  • Comfort
  • Heat
  • Airflow
  • Smell
  • Company
  • Tripsitter

Themes to consider

  • Comfort
  • Privacy
  • Peace
  • Security
  • Safety
  • Simplicity
  • Space

Cultural Context

The setting can also include the city or country that you have your psychedelic experience in. Factors include the legal status; could you go to prison or worse for taking a psychedelic substance, or is it totally legal? and also the cultural context; the public opinion and media representation of psychedelics. An experience in New York will be very different to that of one in Peru and again likewise different to that of one in Amsterdam.

When planning a psychedelic experience consider not just the substance and dose but also think carefully about the setting. It is possible to have a meaningful experience on a lower dose if the set and setting are prepared accordingly and the experience infused with a kind of meaning. The effect of setting on an experience is magnified on psychedelics, and as such is worth careful consideration.

Psychedelics are not an integrated part of our culture in the West and as such they can be difficult to talk about. There is still social stigma attached to the topic, and even though they are increasingly gaining credibility and acceptance, they are still in many ways taboo.

How easily and openly you can talk about psychedelics of course depends on who you are talking to. If you have a very open minded friend then perhaps it is no problem to speak with them about your interest or experience with psychedelics. However, if you come from a conservative background then it may be very difficult to speak about with family members and even bringing up the topic might start ringing alarm bells.

Selective Sharing For Integration

When it comes to a successful integration of your experience, selective sharing is an important point. Just as you have certain friends that you might speak to about certain things like music or philosophy, in the same way you probably have friends that would be more open and receptive to the topic of psychedelics.

Choose carefully who you will share your experience with and how much you will share. The experience can lose some of its magic if not held properly by the listener. A highly skeptical or even mocking response can really dampen what was a very personally meaningful experience and detract from it’s power to catalyze positive change in your life. In some cases it may even cause you to doubt what you experienced and and be encouraged to brush it off as nothing more than a weird drug experience.

Know Your Crowd

Selective sharing should also take into account which aspects of your experience you choose to talk about. If you had a spiritual experience and you have a friend who is very firm in their material mechanistic worldview, then it may not be worth speaking to them about the spiritual aspects of your experience or connecting with the divine. Most likely it will be written off and rationalised by someone who at the end of the day did not experience what you experienced. However, you may be able to speak to that same friend about some of the positive changes you have felt since the experience. You could talk about how you feel or think differently and can even reference some of the science which has shown the changes that happen in the brain. Referencing some of the scientific research that has been done may provide a perspective on the experience that your friend will more readily trust.

 

With this in mind it may not be that with some friends you can speak about psychedelics with and others not. It is more a case of choosing how you speak about psychedelics with each individual.

Opening a Conversation

A good entry to a conversation about psychedelics is to ask a question. Rather than opening up with “I had an amazing experience last weekend on LSD“ you could open up with:

  • “did you ever try LSD?“
  • “did you have any experience with psychedelic drugs?“
  • “do you know anything about psychedelic drugs?“

Entering into a conversation this way is a good way of putting the feelers out. You can get a gauge on persons perspective without commiting yourself to anything and can proceed accordingly in the conversation. If it seems like you do not want to go any further you can say “oh I just read something interesting about it the other day and it got me quite interested.”

Choosing a time to share

If there is someone who you would really like to speak to but are afraid of their response, try to choose a time when they are in a more open and less judgemental state. Generally if someone opens up or shows a vulnerability to you then they will be in a more open frame of mind. Another good sign is when they are really listening to you and asking questions that come from a place of curiosity rather than challenge.

Shifting the landscape through conversation

Talking about psychedelics is an important part of shifting the cultural conversation around the topic and moving the psychedelic movement forwards. With that in mind I would like to share a quote from my friend and Altered founder Dax DeFranco from an interview I did with him back in 2017:

“I think the most important thing is to use and talk about them in an honest way. There’s a lot of talk about ‘coming out of the psychedelic closet’ – like I mentioned before, when you’re the only person who’s experimented with x, it’s hard to talk about it or make it a part of your identity, but the more people that do, the less pressure and fear others feel to identify that way. I think the simple act of being a psychedelic person who’s honest about being a psychedelic person is extremely powerful.”