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About Sam Harris and his magical experiences with psychedelics

sam harris psychedelics

“But if they don’t try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in their adult lives, I will wonder whether they had missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.”

Above is one of the many wonderful bits you could grab out of one of the books, podcasts or interviews with Sam Harris, neuroscientist, philosopher, ‘spiritual atheist’ and best-selling author of books such as Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Today, on Harris’ 53rd birthday, we are going to have a look on why one of the most interesting people and greatest thinkers around think psychedelics could be so important to some of us. 

“Without psychedelics, I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring.”

Uninfluenced happiness

In his book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Harris attempts to answer the following question: “Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain? Is there a happiness that does not depend upon having one’s favorite foods available, or friends and loved ones within arm’s reach, or good books to read, or something to look forward to on the weekend? Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires are gratified, in spite of life’s difficulties, in the very midst of physical pain, old age, disease, and death?”

One of those paths, according to Harris, may be found in complete silence and relaxation. “I can attest that when one goes into silence and meditates for weeks or months at a time, doing nothing else — not speaking, reading, or writing, just making a moment-to-moment effort to observe the contents of consciousness — one has experiences that are generally unavailable to people who have not undertaken a similar practice”, he says. “Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.”

Psychedelics: extraordinary power and utility

Another one of those paths? Psychedelics. “Every waking moment — and even in our dreams — we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition towards states of consciousness that we value. Drugs are another means towards this end”, he states. “Some drugs of extraordinary power and utility, such as psilocybin (the active compound in ‘magic mushrooms’) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), pose no apparent risk of addiction and are physically well tolerated, and yet one can be sent to prison for their use — whereas drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, which have ruined countless lives, are enjoyed ad libitum in almost every society on earth.”

Having tried psychedelics such as psilocybin yourself, you might agree with Harris’ notion that they inhibit extraordinary power and utility in more than one way. As we have talked about before on Avalon Magic Plants, these almost magical compounds are making a real comeback in medical research, as they have been found promising in treating several different mental and physical problems. However, these studies are still being conducted, so as of now, no conclusions can be derived from them. 

Harris is no stranger to delighting us with his own personal trip reports. In one of his podcasts, Harris says taking five dried grams of mushrooms is like being “hurled into the sun, so blinding in its beauty and intensity that it shatters your mind”. Sounds pretty mind bending, yet, in the end, Harris says, “I feel saner than I’ve felt in quite some time.” It were substances like magic mushrooms that were, according to Harris himself, ‘indispensable tools’ in his growth as a person. “Without them, I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring.” 

An heroic dose of magic mushrooms

Fairly recently - a week after having an in-depth conversation with Roland Griffiths, director of Johns Hopkins’s new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research - Harris set out to experience his first psychedelic trip in 25 years. The result was mind-blowing. He blindfolded himself and ate the biggest dose of magic mushrooms of his life, and tried keeping a close observation of the magical experience he was about to explore. It was like being shot into space, he claimed. But “there’s no way to describe this thing in words, just as there’s no way of snapping your fingers to describe the immensity of the experience. Or its beauty. Or its terror, depending,” Harris says. 

“It’s like your mind is being extruded across a landscape and conformed to it, and squeezed, and evaporated. … It’s not merely a matter of seeing in a vast space; it’s a matter of feeling to a degree that defies description”, Harris continues. He compares his mushroom ‘visions’ to the visions said to have been had by Saint Teresa. Teresa’s angelic visions weren’t just something she said she “saw” — she said she felt the angel pierce her heart with a fiery spear, pull out her guts and leave her “utterly consumed by the great love of God.” 

“Ingesting a powerful dose of a psychedelic drug is like strapping oneself to a rocket without a guidance system. One might wind up somewhere worth going, and, depending on the compound and one’s “set and setting,” certain trajectories are more likely than others.”

“There’s no denying that there were parts of the experience that felt like an encounter with something other than my own mind,” Harris says, something that guided him “across the landscape of mind.” Many trippers, Harris notes, interpret this something as god or a universal consciousness. Harris suspends judgment. “My day job is not to be fooled by spurious ideas passed down from our ignorant ancestors, so I’m very slow to make claims about what I think is going on here,” he says. “I’m just reporting the character of the experience.” In the end, Harris says, “I thought of this as the mushroom itself.” 

It are trips like this that amazes both Harris and other people who use magic mushrooms, how extraordinary it can be.  “The fact that there are landscapes of mind this vast lurking on the other side of a mushroom is simply preposterous,” Harris says. “It’s as though we lived in a universe where, if you just reached into your right pocket with your left hand, rather than pull out your wallet, you’d pull out the Andromeda Galaxy.” 

Safety first

But while Harris have had some amazing (and less amazing) experiences with psychedelics, he wouldn’t necessarily recommend everyone to just blindly try it. “This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics”, he says in one of his podcasts. “As I will make clear, these drugs pose certain dangers (...) Ingesting a powerful dose of a psychedelic drug is like strapping oneself to a rocket without a guidance system. One might wind up somewhere worth going, and, depending on the compound and one’s “set and setting,” certain trajectories are more likely than others. But however methodically one prepares for the voyage, one can still be hurled into states of mind so painful and confusing as to be indistinguishable from psychosis”. 

“I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could ever have imagined or than I can now faithfully recall (...) However, as the peaks are high, the valleys are deep. My “bad trips” were, without question, the most harrowing hours I have ever endured, and they make the notion of hell—as a metaphor if not an actual destination—seem perfectly apt”, he says in a 2011 podcast ‘Drugs and the meaning of Life’. 

Making Sense

Interested in hearing more about what Harris has to say about psychedelics and loads of different aspects of life? We advise you to subscribe to his ‘Making Sense Podcast’, it’s well worth it! Because let's be honest: our article couldn't even begin to summarize his more than interesting view on life, drugs and psychedelics. Check out his video below as well, where Harris talks about the potential of psychedelics to expand your mind - but of the dangers of it as well. 

Happy birthday, Sam!