Why do we use drugs? (or in other ways alter our consciousness)
I propose that consciousness alteration be understood in a comprehensive manner, beginning by mapping the full variety of reasons for which we change our minds. Once we have sketched the breadth of motivations, we can both proceed to examine the enormous variety of methods, and to analyse outcomes in a grounded way. After several years of ethnographic research and interdisciplinary study, this is my best attempt to date to provide that necessary first step towards a truly comprehensive theory of consciousness alteration: an answer to the question “why?” There are three basic reasons why you might want to alter your consciousness: Inebriation: change for the sake of change Enhancement: change for the sake of making an improvement Psychedelia: change to catalyse a new perspective or awareness A single drug might be useful for any of the three, and our motivations are frequently not only complicated and mixed, but poorly understood even by ourselves. A musician might vaporise cannabis for performance enhancement, a mystic might eat it as a psychedelic, and a partier might smoke it to get baked (and a mystical musician at a party might opt out altogether, finding that it makes her feel awkward and burnt out). It’s also very frequent for people to take a drug with one thing in mind, but have something else happen entirely, such as taking stimulants for pleasure, but then becoming productive and cleaning the whole house. When I speak of motivations, therefore, I am not necessarily speaking of outcomes. Whether or not it’s possible to transcend spacetime, obliterate the ego and fuse with the Divine during an LSD trip, it’s certainly the case that this has been a motivation for some people who have taken LSD. Taking LSD in the manner in which those people took it, therefore, is a technique of psychedelia, and their outcomes (positive, negative, both or neither) may be instructive for anyone who desires something similar. Each of these categories can also be trifurcated for a more robust and detailed framework. Again, these categories are not mutually exclusive: often our motivations are mixed, and how or why we approach what’s ostensibly the same substance or activity may substantially impact how it will affect us.
INEBRIATION The past slips away, and the future is dark… now is all there is. You are as free as you want to be. Variation: change for the sake of novelty This covers boredom as well as experimentation. It’s not about experiencing something specific so much as something new, so nearly anything can be used for this purpose. Cannabis is notable here: because it can be very inebriating and unpredictable, lasts for a few hours and has an excellent safety profile, many of us turn to it if we just want to feel something different for a while. Negation: freedom from Sometimes it’s not what we want that motivates us, but what we don’t want. For example, if we’re undergoing surgery, we may desire anaesthesia. Always running from our problems can quickly lead to addiction, but if we need temporary relief, that can be had. Benzodiazepines are particularly notable for making everything seem okay, but they’re extremely addictive. Consider the difference between general and specific negation: do you want to shut down completely, or will a more precise technique be better? Disinhibition: freedom to Many of us take drugs because we want to do something but don’t think we can if we’re sober; by perturbing our control mechanisms we can move beyond our usual limitations. This can lead to dangerous behaviour, but for some that’s the whole point. Try your best to differentiate between what you actually want and what you’d regret. Alcohol is the classic example, hence the term liquid courage. This, of course, can complicate or even preclude the possibility of consent. Don’t take advantage of people on drugs! Not cool. Inebriation is both a broad motivational category (desiring alteration) and how “altered” we feel: if you feel like you’re “on drugs,” you’re inebriated (whether or not you’ve taken a drug). That feeling is used to self-assess impairment, although the two don’t always coincide. It’s worth remembering that impairment is only meaningful in reference to a task of some sort, not all tasks require the same mental faculties, and not all inebriants are inebriating in the same way. For example, in a driving simulator study, Andrew Sewell et al found that THC (found in cannabis) made test subjects less able to perform normally automated tasks, but did not impair the complex tasks upon which they had to focus, while alcohol had the opposite profile: those who received it were worse at things they focused on but largely still able to do what comes automatically. The two drugs, it seems, are impairing in completely different ways. Sewell et al also reported that those on THC seemed to be self-correcting and driving more carefully because they felt very inebriated, while those on alcohol often overestimated their ability, and got into far more accidents. Cannabis therefore appears to have been more inebriating, but less impairing (at least with driving in a simulator), and the combination of the two was far more impairing than either separately. Other drugs and other combinations will have different profiles.
ENHANCEMENT Got any room for improvement? Performance: do something better When we’re under pressure, techniques that make us faster, stronger, smarter, wittier or improve our endurance are often in high demand. Stimulants can help us to focus, but productivity sometimes comes at the cost of creativity, and if we act like machines, we might break down like them. Make sure to eat, sleep and allow enough recovery time. Is the chance of becoming dependent worth it? Pleasure: feel better It sure is good to feel good. Big surprise: that’s why a lot of us get high! This includes indirect pleasures (such as getting high so the music will sound better), masochism, and long term well-being/thriving. Some of us exercise and eat well because we know we’ll feel better if we do. Follow your bliss and observe the results! Your mileage may vary. Immersion: get into the groove Occasionally, everything just falls into place. Our neurotic chatter shuts off and we feel totally present and connected, each movement flowing from the last. Many consider “flow” to be the optimal experience, and there are many ways we try to bring this about, such as drinking to “lubricate” conversation, turning boring tasks into a game or harnessing the breath and body through yoga or qi gong. Keep in mind that just because something worked once doesn’t mean it will again, and that flow is necessarily contextual and dynamic. Sometimes we end up causing problems even when our goal was to make an improvement. If we’re unsure whether something is leading to more benefit or harm, we can start keeping track, perhaps in a journal. What do we want to happen? Is it happening? Is anything else happening? Any precautions or advice? Check in with friends, family or the internet if you want help sorting out working and what’s not. Maybe we can learn from your attempts too!
PSYCHEDELIA Expand your consciousness; open your mind and look beyond your everyday filters. Communion: awareness of interconnection You are a speck compared to the cosmos, and yet contain trillions of distinct lifeforms. Even now you read my words and breathe air I have exhaled. When our trip is directed outwards, where we are and who we’re with provide raw material for us to experience. To have a beautiful experience, be somewhere beautiful, both internally and externally. Especially when it’s your first time, it can be very important to make sure you’ll be safe from intrusion and with someone experienced who you can trust intimately. Mystery: transcendence When our trip is directed inwards, no words can do it justice. A few of my respondents’ descriptions: “a voyage into the underworld”; “Oneness with God”; “the ineffable hyperspace lexicon”; “scintillating, luminescent Non-Being.” DON’T PANIC! You must accept the inevitability of total physical and psychic immolation, the shattering of ego and the dramatic fruition of every secret fear. Just close your eyes and go into it. Surrender, and be free. Discovery: learning Sometimes what we’re after is information or understanding. It’s may be useful to record our thoughts (with pen/paper, an audio recorder, etc) so as to review them later and see what’s of value. Many find that a powerful drug trip can make this much harder, and so prefer low doses or non-drug techniques like insight meditation. Avoid distractions and don’t rush it: allow time for reflection. Psychedelia can describe any technique undertaken to provide a new perspective or insight. However, the classic psychedelics (substances such as mescaline, LSD and psilocin mushrooms), for which the word “psychedelic” was coined, are so powerful as to require emphasis here. Many trips will include elements of each of the above as they progress. For example, a tripper might spend the first several hours with eyes closed (in contact with the Mystery), then open up and enter into contact with body, companions and world (Communion), and finally spend time reflecting and contemplating (Discovery). Consider set and setting carefully, and never underestimate the power of the unconscious. Rather than presenting Inebriation, Enhancement and Psychedelia as wholly separate categories, this model contains three mirrored pairs which highlight the interrelations between the broad categories while demonstrating their distinctions. Change, improvement and awareness may lend themselves to each other, though each covers its own ground. Exploration: As going and coming are mirrored, so too are Variation and Discovery. Even without intending to, we may still learn. By exploring possible states of mind, we may learn the lay of the proverbial land. By contemplating the same topic in different states of mind, we gain reference points, comparisons between which may reveal information not contained in either: psychic triangulation. By sharing and discussing in a non-dogmatic manner we can learn even more, as no two minds are alike. We all perceive and react differently, and some perspectives reveal information from which others are structurally blinded. A truly comprehensive theory of anything will almost certainly involve contradiction, so don’t worry about having to be exclusively “right,” but instead look for what might be useful. Participation: Being able to act (Disinhibition) and being better at acting (Performance) are similarly mirrored. It’s worth remembering the distinction between inebriation and impairment: Shakespeare is quoted as saying that alcohol “increases the appetite [for sex] but decreases the performance.” Often, however, our everyday preconceptions keep us from doing our best, and so alterity (becoming the Other), manifest as inebriation, is sometimes inseparable from enhancement. “Free your mind and your ass will follow” – George Clinton Connection: Where Immersion seeks connection, Communion reveals it. These may play out very differently (losing yourself in a game versus meditating on the flow of a river), but they mirror each other, and often overlap, as in two lovers gazing into each other’s eyes. Observation influences outcome, just as experience may precede recognition. ————————————————————————————————————————— The theory outlined above is my best attempt to comprehensively describe the motivations for consciousness alteration. However, as no systematisation or definition is ever truly sufficient to stand in for a complex phenomena, I do not expect this theory to be definitive for all time. On the contrary, I welcome proposals of revisions, and encourage others to adapt or borrow from it. Take what’s useful, and avoid clinging dogmatically to the arbitrary particulars of this or any other theory. As Alfred Korzybski famously remarked, “the map is not the territory,” and no box is big enough for one as multifaceted as you.