THR Web Features   /   December 21, 2022

The Banality of Psychedelics

And the wisdom of what is commonplace.

Stephen Akey

( Detail of The Doors concert poster. Bonnie MacLean. c. 1968.)

The gravel path shifted under my feet, tilting deliriously up to meet my step or precipitously away to hobble my progress. The further I walked—haltingly— toward the endpoint of an outlet of a small, Japanese-style pond, the further that endpoint receded from me. When I moved, the path moved too, rising and falling in graceful, undulating waves like a great ribbon of taffy. A slight breeze whistled through the trembling leaves, and glowing nimbuses of color blurred the outlines of the strollers enjoying, like me, that warm spring day in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Of all the questions that flooded into my brain during this, the first of two recent experiments I undertook with psilocybin, this one predominated: Did it have to be so exactly like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”?

Scientific research into the therapeutic value of psilocybin and other hallucinogens is, by now, old news. The danger, as science journalist Michael Pollan and others have warned, is no longer legal and bureaucratic obstruction. It is the opposite: a rush to embrace risky therapies still insufficiently understood. Yet even the most rigorous of medical personnel have testified to the stunning transformations of attitude and behavior wrought in the terminally ill or severely depressed or variously addicted subjects of their clinical trials. A carefully administered and properly controlled dosage of a hallucinogen, their studies attest, can accomplish in a single, not-to-be-repeated session what years of psychotherapy and regimens of antidepressant medications often fail to achieve.

I believe it. Nowhere, however, in the outpouring of recent literature on the subject, have I encountered any significant discussion of what most struck me in my limited experience of psychotropic drugs. The visions I encountered and the perceptions I took away were every bit as intense, rapturous, frightening, and transformative as sober physicians and wild-eyed advocates claim them to be. They were also—and this doesn’t get talked about much—astonishingly banal. If “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was one frame of reference for me, another was the poster art of late sixties California acid rock. I had been given a privileged glimpse into the collective unconscious and it looked like a dayglo poster for the Jefferson Airplane at Fillmore West circa 1967.

One of the few accounts I have read that glancingly acknowledges the banality of the psychedelic experience occurs in one of the case histories in Pollan’s bestselling investigation into the uses of such drugs, How To Change Your Mind. There, a woman named Savannah Miller is described as a single mother in her thirties with a punishing cigarette habit and a psychotic, abusive boyfriend in the not-too-distant past. The epiphany she arrives at in the midst of her medically sanctioned psilocybin journey, and for which she is immensely grateful, is this: “Eat right. Exercise. Stretch.”

We know we’re supposed to do those things, of course, but many of us don’t. For someone like Miller, struggling to free herself from the craving of an unhealthy and expensive addiction, a useful bromide about taking care of her health was more likely to sink in when delivered by the image of a hideous smoking gargoyle (which she encountered on her trip) than by, say, Mister Rogers. In any case, the message was delivered with considerable efficiency; for months afterwards, Pollan reports, Miller drew on that frightening image of herself as a foul gargoyle to allay her nicotine craving.

Convinced as I am of the banality of the psychedelic experience—the banality of the visions, sounds, and sensations of the psychedelic journey itself, and the banality of the wisdom derived therefrom—I am far from dismissive of or even skeptical about the therapeutic and spiritual value of hallucinogens. Quite the contrary. The Oxford English Dictionary defines banality as “anything trite or trivial; a commonplace.” OK, “trite” and “trivial” don’t sound so good, but “commonplace”? Aren’t most of the things we love and revere commonplace? Is there anything exotic or estranging or unfamiliar about tenderness or kindness or the rainbow of colors or the encyclopedia of textures we find in our suburban backyards? Yes, I know—I'm speaking not only of banalities but in banalities. That’s one of the things psilocybin taught me: I'm not so full of wit and wisdom as I think I am.

To return to particulars, I was expecting Bach’s music of the spheres and what I got was “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” But wait a minute—it is a great song, banal only by comparison to Bach or perhaps by its overfamiliarity. Apart from the harmonic richness so characteristic of the Beatles (three key modulations and two alternating time signatures), the song marries outlandish hallucinatory imagery to the simplicity of a child’s unmediated apprehension of the world, which was, of course, the germ of the idea that inspired the lyric. It is not that I was disappointed, exactly, by the unmistakable parallels between my psilocybin experience and a Beatles song; it is just that I thought I would be discovering something new, and I didn’t.

Similarly, those ephemeral posters advertising psychedelic rock-and-roll shows of the late sixties, visions and variations of which kept swarming through my head, have turned out to be not so ephemeral after all and are much prized by collectors and connoisseurs. Yes, I suppose they are a bit vulgar. They are also bold and sinuous and as creative as the best Art Nouveau designs, which they somewhat resemble; they are banal only if you are expecting something on the order of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, which I was, in a way. Fortunately, I also kept seeing, projected on the screen of my closed eyelids, fantastically intricate images and patterns suggestive of the most sumptuous Indian art of the Mughal Empire. Then again, those images bore an uncanny resemblance to the cover of Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 album Axis: Bold as Love, which features a faux-Mughal painting of Jimi and his two bandmates posed as Hindu deities in a receding perspective of multiplying heads and limbs. How that man managed to play extraordinary guitar solos while tripping on powerful hallucinogens (I couldn’t even operate the music playlist on my iPhone) remains not the least of the mysteries surrounding the psychedelic experience.

Was this the universal reality behind the screen of appearances known to all shamans and mystical adepts wherever psychotropic plants have been cultivated? I am still not sure how those classic Islamic shapes and architectonic forms ended up in my head, but I have an idea where the rest of the stuff came from: the rock-and-roll culture with which I grew up and, apparently, have never left behind. And if that’s true, my experience might seem to bear out the claim made by some researchers that hallucinogenic visions are more deeply mediated by cultural parameters than psychedelic enthusiasts in the developed West like to imagine. In an article in Vice, anthropologist Manvir Singh described the role that Amazonian shamans played in ayahuasca rituals for locals as opposed to the role they played for psychedelic tourists. For the locals, “Shamans used ayahuasca to contact supernatural realms and identify and battle witches causing misfortune. Insofar as ayahuasca was used to treat distress, this meant combatting evil.” For the tourists, there were no battles against very real and present enemies. What they got, essentially, was a more intense version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Some of those tourists were Silicon Valley moguls, for whom taking psychedelics has become a bonding ritual, bringing together like-minded geniuses (as they see themselves) at cushy retreats. What the gods seem to be telling them, in the course of these retreats, is that steamroller capitalism is the greatest of all possible goods and that there is no spiritual or physical problem for which high tech does not have a high-tech solution. Contrary to the title of Pollan’s book, psychedelics can be used not to change your mind but to confirm your already-held beliefs. 

I don’t know what cultural parameters could have made an ordinary Brooklyn street, when I emerged from the botanic garden, appear to bend and warp in curvilinear defiance of the New York City grid and of nature itself. What matters for the practitioner, if not the scientist, is not so much where the visions come from or how they are generated from a matrix of neurological activity, cultural inheritance, and deep psychology, as that the visions are palpably, overwhelmingly there. “We should probably look no further than the magnificence of the experience itself,” wrote philosopher Galen Strawson in his review of Pollan’s book in the Times Literary Supplement. “Its significance consists in the fact that it exists.”

Like many others, I took my psilocybin journeys in the hope of mitigating or understanding the usual emotional wreckage. What surprised me was not that I more or less achieved that goal but that I had so much fun getting there. With my constitutional high-mindedness, I had envisioned the whole experience (illegal in my case, since I didn’t qualify for a clinical trial) as an awkward and perhaps painful means to a desired end. What I found was that the intensity of the means surpassed the significance of the end—which is to say, there is nothing quite like blowing your mind on a hallucinogen. Or rather, the means are the end. Tripping my way (literally—I could barely walk straight) through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and, on a second experiment, the northern end of Central Park, I bid a temporary farewell to my useless ego and let everything wash over me. Yes, it was on some level astonishingly banal, but the sheer scale of the experience obliterated (for the time) all other considerations. There’s no use wishing a psychedelic trip were a little more . . . subtle. It comes at you like a freight train. In that moment—and it is a very long moment—you are not in any sort of condition to fret over the relative degree of sublimity versus banality in the visions you are seeing. There is no difference.

Aside from the minor pleasure of breaking the law every now and then, one of the advantages of tripping illegally is the freedom to operate outside the confines, however well-appointed and comfortable, of a clinical setting. My experience might have been less intense if I hadn’t seen streets and parks and apartment buildings and, most of all, people transfigured into hallucinogenic versions of themselves. And, in that setting, one danger is that when a trip starts to go bad, there are no trained personnel to head off the danger. My dear companion, as clueless as myself, asked a few mild questions when I started entering the precincts of hell, but otherwise confined herself to reading The House at Pooh Corner, as indeed there wasn’t much else for her to do during the long hours of my journey to the center of my mind, to borrow the title of a wonderfully trashy acid rock hit of 1968 by the Amboy Dukes. Eventually I pulled myself, or got pulled, out of that hell, but I might have spent less than the eternity it seemed there if I had had the proper “set and setting” that clinicians rightfully insist on.

Clinicians also insist on the importance of “integration,” usually a formal question and answer follow-up. And yet I'm not sure that a post-trip interview with even the most sensitive of doctors or therapists would have illuminated all that much. What illumination is necessary to understand the central truths that the psychedelic experience affords? I don’t know, nor do I question why some Amazonian peoples experience their ayahuasca journeys as adversarial in nature. All I know is that the central truths revealed to me by psilocybin were all the things my mother tried to teach me when I was six years old. We should be kind and loving. We should forgive others, we should forgive ourselves. We should accept the bad with the good. We should revel in the passing glory of being alive, and we don’t need any God or afterlife to shield us from the realities of life and death.

OK, my mother, a devout Roman Catholic, wouldn’t have imparted that last truth to me, but all her other precepts line up with the testimony compiled by Pollan and other authorities on hallucinogens. We forget to eat right, exercise, and stretch. We also forget to be as kind and loving as we ought. No nugget of wisdom could be more banal—or more essential—than that.