Beyond The Trip:
"Things would always happen while high on acid that under no ordinary circumstances would happen"
- Anthony Bourdain, "Have a Good Trip"
Drug experiences are not just considered unreliable in our culture. They have been treated as completely misleading and a go-to explanation for wild claims by "crazy" people. When someone describes an unbelievable experience like alien abductions or spiritual visions, drug use is an easy way to explain it away. Even in the Bible, Pentecost is dismissed by onlookers as an effect of "new wine." (Acts 2:13) Whatever is experienced while under the influence of a substance is treated with complete suspicion. But what if some experiences under the influence and around the discovery of psychedelic drugs could not be easily explained? What do we do with experiences which include external support for their validity? Do these imply that psychedelic drugs really do cause experiences of a spiritual reality?
Psychedelic subculture is full of stories about impossible occurrences under the effects of LSD, DMT, or similar substances, and many are corroborated by outside evidence. One common impossibility is shared trip elements. Multiple people under the influence of psychedelics might experience the same thing, either at the same time or during different trips. Comedian and psychedelic advocate Shane Mauss described DMT trips that convinced him that the psychedelic realm was real.
Mauss commented that “I kinda thought it was all in my head… I was talking to all these beings… I was like ‘you need to show me something to prove you’re outside of my head.’” Mauss describes, in great detail, a later DMT trip in which he spent the day with a purple woman at a surreal carnival. Later, Mauss says that another friend took DMT. Unprompted, this friend described a purple woman at a carnival who said she loves Mauss, using the same unique and surreal details from Mauss’ trip.
Mauss claims that he never told his friend about the previous DMT trip, yet this trip also shared striking similarities. This purple woman has been with Mauss on several trips since then. Clearly, this is an experience that is difficult to explain. Mauss asked for a sign from the beings he encountered, and it seems that he received one. This experience was so startling that it caused him to change his beliefs about DMT, its nature, and perhaps the cosmos as a whole.
These sorts of unlikely experiences do not just happen during recreational use. Dr. William Richards, a psychedelic researcher at Johns Hopkins University, describes several in his book Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experience. In one example, Richards was assisting an incarcerated patient who was given a therapeutic dose of LSD. During the trip, this patient claimed to see a dancing figure he could not identify. In a follow-up visit, this patient chanced upon a picture of the dancing Hindu god Shiva in Richard’s office. The patient excitedly identified that image as the being he had encountered, even though he could not remember ever seeing that image before the trip. Richards says that this subject had never finished junior high and grew up in inner-city Baltimore, so it is highly unlikely that he was exposed to sacred Hindu iconography previously.
Some difficult-to-explain psychedelic experiences did not even happen while under the influence of a substance. Albert Hofmann, the chemist who discovered LSD, did so by mistake. Initially, Hoffman created LSD in 1936 as part of general research into artificial lysergic acid compounds. In 1943, Hofmann claims he was struck by “a peculiar presentiment—the feeling that this substance could possess properties other than those established in the first investigations.” Despite following normal laboratory safety measures, he accidentally ingested LSD and discovered its psychedelic effects. Hofmann later explicitly gave LSD agency in this story, saying "I did not choose LSD; LSD found and called me.”
Perhaps you came to this article with your own difficult-to-explain story from a friend or your own life. If so, I hope these stories can be an encouragement. You are not “crazy,” and your story deserves to be told. Perhaps you can share it with trusted religious leaders, an open-minded therapist, or understanding friends.
Perhaps you came to this article because you are skeptically curious. I hope this article can help clarify that we cannot so easily explain away psychedelic experiences because these substances are "just drugs." There is often corroborating evidence that trips are something more than hallucinations. Whether or not you believe these occurrences constitute "real" spiritual encounters, the people who have these experiences often do. There must be explanations that account for evidence outside of a trip.