Psychedelics, Hallucinations, and Learning to See

Psychedelics teach you to see what's there — materially and affectively. To see intensity. To see intensely. Which it to say, to hallucinate is not to see what's not there (an absurdity): it's to see what is in fact always there.

One night in the Fall of 1989, I found myself alone on my college campus in lovely, apocalyptic West Philadelphia tripping on LSD. I sat on a bench that, oddly, faced away from the parodical Ivy League campus behind it. With nowhere else to look, I cocked my head upwards and could suddenly see with utter clarity that the Earth was moving, fast. I could see it. And, more importantly, I could feel it. There I sat in my makeshift cosmic cockpit, steering the entire blue planet through the ether. Wooooosh! I was giddy.

Yes, I knew I wasn't actually steering the Earth. That was just a goof. But I did see, and feel, the planet's movement. The giddiness was different in kind and degree from any giddiness I'd known before from, say, laughing with my brother or seeing Jethro Tull live for the first time. This giddiness vibrated with the rhythm and intensity of the spinning Earth. It's a giddiness I would come to know more intimately, a giddiness that persists to this day — not as a recollection but as a live experience when I'm seeing as I've been taught to see by LSD. This giddiness is still happening to me, in me, with me, as me. (Ah, prepositions: they locate us, position us, in the universe and can therefore be tricky as all get out: how do you stand towards, in, with the world? This remains my dominant line of inquiry as I consider the world; it's not a philosophical query per se as it is, finally, the question of rhetoric: a question of position and perspective.)

Hallucinations have a bad rap. Or, rather, a wrong rap. I mean, just think about it: How can you see what's not there? That's as absurd as it is impossible. So what are these so-called hallucinations we experience with psychedelics? (I can't, so won't, speak for hallucinations experienced by the psycho-divergent, a word I prefer to "mentally ill" or any other such pathologizing of psychic states. But I am curious if the things I say here resonate with such states; I welcome input from those with more experience and insight.)

Let me tell you about an experience from a few years ago. I was sitting in my apartment, on my shaggy red rug, with an old friend. It was night and we'd turned the lights off as we smoked Changa — a mix of herbs and DMT. Unlike the usual DMT experience, smoking this Changa was more relaxed, allowing us to interact with each other and the world around us. Which is to say, we were relatively lucid. At one point, I saw these swimming strings, for lack of a better word, of light. Which was kind of funny as it was dark. Still, I could see quite well thanks to, among other things, dilated pupils and ubiquitous urban lights; the room glowed with the red of my rug. And, sure enough, I could see these strands or strings just sort of wafting through the ether. I put my hand out to touch one and, yes, I could hold it in my fingers, stretch it, let it drape and twitch in the air. I turned to my friend and asked if he saw them. Without hesitation, he said yes and then we proceeded to pass these strands back and forth. 

We were not seeing things that weren't there — which, again, is an absurdity. We were seeing what was there, presumably, all the time but which we normally can't — or won't — see. In this sense, to hallucinate is to see what is there: to see the becoming of the universe, to see the stuffs that flourish between, among, and with the stuff we're trained to see, all the knickknacks of consumer life, objects in space, egos and identities. But, with psychedelics, we see other stuff, what we imagine to be negative space, the flesh of the universe, the plenum of cosmic becoming, this teem of energy, light, affect. And process: we see the how of life happening, the manner and mechanisms by which the world constitutes itself out of itself.

Psychedelics amplify what we take to be our senses and/or they introduce us to senses we're not used to using. This is not just about seeing the strands of light but seeing the things we usually see but seeing them anew, in a more robust sense — in their milieu of becoming. We participate in the affective swirls and eddies that are always streaming about. I want to call this empathy in that we feel with the things we see. 

Anyone who's smoked or eaten marijuana knows this well. What we call being high is the freshly introduced perception of affect — the moods of a room, of music, of your roommate, a glance, a TV show. We listen to Joni Mitchell's "Blue" and are astounded as we utter a most emphatic Whoa! Movies and media casually mock this whoa as stoner vapidity. But what is that whoa other than a reaction to affective intensity, that is, a greater, richer perceptive processing? What is it other than the perception of what's always there but which we habitually ignore? This life of ours with all its distractions, stresses, and burdens of work, relationships, traffic, and the so-called news has little space for the affect of Joni Mitchell — not to mention of our rooms, bodies, clouds, food, people. But we smoke a spleef — or, these days, hit a vape or eat a gummy — which opens our senses and allows us to reckon what is already there. Getting high is not a false or silly reality as the media would have it. It's in fact a most empirical and amplified reckoning of life, of all the invisible stuffs of the everyday. The stoned sees more, processes more, reckons more.

The psychedelic experience — of LSD, psilocybin (mushrooms), MDA and MDMA (ecstasy), DMT, marijuana — is not an alternate reality. It allows us — it teaches us — to perceive the fullness of information that's always happening. In fact, we might say that the sobriety of the working man is the hallucination! He doesn't see what's in fact happening all around him! In this sense, hallucination is a less rather than a more — a not seeing rather than a seeing-plus.

What I'm going to call the square is the person who sees objects independently occupying and moving through space and nothing else — not the strands of light, the flesh of the air, the affect of all things, the ways in which everything informs and inflects everything else. The tree stands, the dog runs, the kids play but the square doesn't see all the information that pervades those objects, that surrounds and creates these bodies.

The square is reasonable. And such is the terrible tyranny of reason: it smugly dismisses everything outside its purview. Reason is, alas, not reasonable. In fact, nothing is more insane — and insidious — than reason. It's insane in that it demands the world align with its rigid quantities and isolated bodies despite relentless evidence to the contrary! And it's insidious as it claims the mantle of reason which, alas, needs no other justification. There are no swirls of affect, you damn hippy! There's no empathy. We're all independent bodies drifting alone in space. Be reasonable! And yet this same person disintegrates, falling into pits of existential despair when their love goes unrequited. (I love the new use of "them"; yes, I moved from the singular "same person" to  the plural "their" love. I'm unreasonable, I suppose.)

With psychedelics, we don't just see objects as distinct bodies moving through space: we feel — we perceive — things making their way in the world. We experience the grace of that tree's branches winding and twisting; we feel the dissipation of clouds; we swell with the ocean. After tripping, you learn that to see will never have been about locating objects in space from a remove. To see is to participate in the becoming of things. To feel, and know, their modes of self-constitution. This is what I want to call scientific seeing, empirical perception, processing all the information available, not just what's readily quantified.

Psychedelics teach us that to see is to participate in the becoming of the universe.

In his book, "Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants and the Evolution of The Noösphere," the philosopher and psychedelic theorist, Richard Doyle (aka mobius), refers to psychedelic plants as ecodelic in that they allow us to perceive the cooperative system that is the universe — the flow of processes and information between and among different life forms. Which is to say, ecodelics don't just reveal more information about what's there; they reveal the modes of world formation, the how as well as the what. Ecodelic plants have us participate in the ecology of being — or, rather, the ecology of becoming. We experience the collective nature of nature, the ecological basis of form and identity (although what we call identity becomes something else entirely after ecodelic perception).

The great French philosopher and phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, argues that sight is a mode of palpation: to see is to touch. This goes against the reasonable (square) model of vision that has us view the world from the safety of our bodies and egos: I'm here, that smelly dog is over there. But for Merleau-Ponty, seeing is touching — which means the things we see touch us back, including the smelly dog. He refers to the act of seeing as a chiasmus, an intertwining of bodies that effaces the subject-object dichotomy. In this chiasmatic perception, seer and seen swap positions at infinite speed. In our very act of seeing, then, we are seen: we are touched by the world. Perception is an inherently cooperative event.

Psychedelics open up and operate in this middle voice, this in-between in which the ego and its objects will never have been discrete. When we trip, we become empathetic. What I mean by empathy is not that we feel what others feel. It's that we feel with these bodies as we are participating in a common universe of energetic, material, and affective flows. When we're high or tripping, we process more information with senses we don't usually use or foreground. We feel with the tree's every twist and turn; we feel the drift of the clouds as they arc, bend, gather, and dissipate; we feel the swells of the ocean, the joyous flight of the pelican, the frantic speed of the snowy plover. How? Not because we become those things — that would be silly — but because we are all always becoming together, inflecting each other, touching each other in the intertwining that is perception, that is identity, that is the world. Psychedelics teach us to see, to perceive, to enjoy the ecological autopoiesis of forms both visible and invisible. We see, we experience, the world forming itself from itself as itself. 

How do you see the snowy plover and not feel with it? Such reasonable seeing misses so much information the world proffers.

This education persists after the drug presumably "wears off." Which is to say, the drug never really wears off. It teaches us to see, to process, the massive amounts of information that surround us. So now, thanks to my psychedelic experiences, when I leave my house and gaze at the sky, I continue to feel with those clouds, feel the stretching of the universe into the curved infinite. I feel the flowers bloom and die, the trees wind and shed — not as them but as me-with-them. 

And this transforms me, makes me different than I was, as in the very act of perception, I take on plover-becoming, cloud-becoming, ocean-becoming, Brian-becoming (thanks, Deleuze and Guattari). In this sense, perception is no longer about gathering information from a safe distance so as to confirm my place in it. Perception becomes a going-with that inflects and transforms the perceiver — me!

“I took my [mescaline] pill at eleven ... I spent several minutes – or was it several centuries? – not merely gazing at those bamboo legs, but actually being them – or rather being myself in them; or, to be still more accurate (for "I" was not involved in the case, nor in a certain sense were "they") being my Not-self in the Not-self which was the chair.”  
— Aldous Huxley

This is no doubt what scares people about psychedelics: perception, which is unavoidable, suddenly becomes an agent of personal change. To see is to be transformed. And so much of what we call knowledge and pedagogy is predicated on staying the same, on forging mastery over the world to make certain we remain who and what we are. The psychedelic experience puts you into the great stew of the universe, into a state of becoming with the world — with the hawks, rocks, moods, mosquitoes, and kiwis.

All too often, however, I forget or suppress this way of seeing. I find myself focused once again on my isolated ego — as if I wasn't sitting in a soup of cosmic energies and affect that are flowing through me, around me, around the birds, trees, rocks, neighbors, dogs, and clouds. As I think and see as my so-called reasonable ego — Does she love me? Is that a swallow? Should I punish my son for not doing his homework? (of course not!) — the wealth of information that surrounds me is ignored, forgotten, repressed. I forget how to see.

But, thanks to psychedelics, all I have to do is remember to use my neglected senses. This may or may not involve ingesting a drug. Sometimes, I'm so out of practice that I can't just recall what I've been taught: I need another lesson! Other times, all I have to do is lean into that practice of seeing and, voilà, there I am: suddenly, the world is brimming with all this exquisite information as I begin to participate in the great cosmic becoming.

Are there ways other than psychedelics to see? No doubt. Deep, prolonged meditation; extended silence; starvation; heightened states of fear; even love: these can all teach us to use senses we don't normally use. 

But I never want to suggest that something is wrong about using psychedelics, that they're some kind of cheating or crutch. I am saying quite the opposite: psychedelics are crucial aspects of human consciousness (pace Terence McKenna). They might not be the only teachers but they are great, highly effective teachers.

And the teachers matter. It's not that there are different paths to the same mode of seeing. The different paths — the different drugs — teach specific aspects of seeing, amplifying this or that aspect of ecological (non)ontology. DMT reveals the moving geometric structures of matter (among other things); psilocybin (magic mushrooms) instructs us on the pulsing, undulating flows of everything; LSD highlights the temperature and intensity of matter, visible and invisible; marijuana, the micro pleats and mechanics of affect between all things, especially social encounters; MD(M)A — which I believe is often mistakenly not considered a psychedelic — teaches us to feel the ecology of identity, the fundamental interconnection of all things, that is intensely peaceful (ecology can often be chaotic but, with ecstasy, it's all good. I believe this positivity is why many don't recognize it as psychedelic but, I have to say, learning the positivity of cosmic becoming is not to be underestimated).

Psychedelics don't make us see what's not there. We don't hallucinate phantom fables. On the contrary, psychedelics — each in its own way — teach us to see what is in fact always there: to see with, and as, the intertwined becoming of the world.

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