A Bad Trip on Hallucinogenic Mushrooms*


Many argue that there is no such thing as a Bad Trip, only challenging ones. However, if you’re hurt – be that physically, emotionally or mentally – during a trip, how else can you describe it other than ‘bad’? If after the experience you’re worse off than you were when you started, how can you say “everything happens for a reason”? Lessons can indeed be found in every aspect of our lives – if we only look for them – but there does exist a kind of unpleasant trip which one should certainly avoid, and it is one in which 2 fundamental rules are violated. It is a trip in which one A) ignores the psychophysical contraindications of mushroom use (read more on that HERE) and B) doesn’t adhere to the Set & Setting safety rules, which you can learn about HERE.

Know when not to take them!

If you have contraindications for the consumption of psilocybin, you must not consume them! As in this case the mushrooms could cause you real psychophysical problems, entailing not simply a bad trip but perhaps a heart attack, a severe psychotic episode, or worse.

Not respecting Set & Setting may seem less serious than ignoring contraindications, as the substance in and of itself cannot cause any issues, but you can actually find yourself in situations which are risky or dangerous to your physical health or experience moments which are undesirable from a mental or emotional point of view, leaving you traumatised. Thus, in both cases it is possible to end up with permanent damage, so always strive to have respect for these fundamental and very necessary rules.

Challenging Trips

If you respect these safety rules you can very well say that a Bad Trip is a non-existent threat and that the worst a trip can be is challenging. I have now, at long last, experienced this first hand and I am writing today to tell you what happened. After dozens of psychedelic trips, hundreds of posts published on both this blog and my Facebook page, and 3 whole books on the subject… I had never once been through a bad trip! I call it that again if only to properly portray the full incredible power of that which I experienced. The term “bad” could almost be substituted for “Strong”, but in order to maintain the terrifying aura which surrounds it – and rightly so – I’ll continue to call it Bad.

But just what is a Bad Trip? One in which there is something which instills intense fear in one or more of the following areas: physical, emotional and mental. How inadequate words are, as it is one thing to think of a fear, and another entirely to experience it. This difference is never as sufficiently clear as in the moment when one finds oneself in the midst of such an experience.

What is it you’re really afraid of?

What’s the biggest fear you can experience? What scares you the most? It’s worth mulling this over, as the answer could surprise you. It’s possible that you’re not afraid of what you think you are, just as the feeling of the fear itself might not be exactly how you imagine it. I can’t say how many people this applies to, but during this particular trip I certainly discovered what it is to feel fear and what it is I am afraid of. To my surprise, I learned that I hadn’t had the faintest idea of either of these 2 things. Or, to put it better, I had been thinking the wrong way about myself and my fears, which didn’t correspond to what I experienced.

I can no longer call myself a young man, and my adventurous life has been rich with challenges on all 3 planes (physical, mental and emotional). The opportunity to feel fear has presented itself to me many times. However, during the trip that I took, something new happened, something that was on a whole other level to anything else I had ever experienced. A profound fear repeatedly took control of substantial parts of me, leaving the rest of me backed into a corner, completely powerless and stunned. On one hand, I could scarcely believe what I was feeling, while on the other I was completely immersed in the tempest whirling around me. 

It doesn’t matter if I knew it was just my own stuff that was overwhelming me. Even being cognisant of the fact that I was creating it all, I had no control over it whatsoever. It was a suffocating fear, one which even produced physical effects in my body from which there was no relief in sight. There was no escape from myself, nowhere to flee to. I had pain in my neck and my shoulders; I struggled to draw breath; time dilated, and I felt myself collapsing under that terrifying sensation. 

Uncontrollable fear 

Wherever I turned my attention, the sensation grew, mounting in intensity at an alarming rate. My mind reeled wildly through an array of different fears which exploded simultaneously within me, leaving me gasping for breath and scrambling for something else to focus on, an interior battle from which there was no respite. From the abyssal madness of my collapsing unconscious mind, my greatest fear emerged, like a kind of continuous fall backwards into some ugly fate.

A few weeks after this experience, I was contacted by a reader who had previously written to me about one of their experiences in which ‘it had all been so perfect, I could hardly believe it was real’. This time they wanted to tell me about a bad trip which had consisted of ‘a 5 hour long panic attack’, a protracted and maddening fear of insanity which had instilled in them a great sense of compassion for those suffering with mental illness. For them, this had been a very intense experience, traumatising to the point where they vowed to never take a single mushroom again and wanted me to ‘warn people’! Their email really struck me, because the trip they had recounted was very similar to what I had experienced myself during the trip which finally taught me the meaning of the phrase ‘if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you’. It’s a horrifying feeling of dissolution on an indescribably grand scale, like a droplet of water lost in an ocean of madness in the depths of the subconscious.

Don’t ignore the signs

How did I find myself in this situation? It’s interesting, because not one but several different circumstances were influential in causing the bad trip, a concurrence of events which seemed to work together to produce the very experience I had been missing.

The first of these peculiar circumstances were the mushrooms, i.e. Psilocybe Cubensis McKennaii, the same one I’ve always used though this time gifted to me by a friend. He had ground them and stored them in a glass jar in the fridge for almost 5 years. Following a trip in which he was sure he had died, he had left them untouched, claiming to be through with mushrooms for good. Not having the heart to throw them away, he donated a discrete quantity of his stash to me.

This friend of mine is a warrior and I believe that the mushrooms must have absorbed his qualities as they matured, just as I am convinced that there is a little bit of me in mine. After being refrigerated for so many years – though nonetheless finely ground – I wondered whether they were even active anymore and told myself I would try some to see how they were. Several weeks passed, and then the right moment finally arrived, which was the second peculiar circumstance: on Sunday, October 31st, I was to be home alone. I knew that the energies on this day are challenging however, and so I decided to test a small quantity just to be sure: 3.5 grams.

(Read my posts on heroic and extreme experiences HERE and HERE, but a standard dose for me is 5 grams or more. 3.5 grams therefore constitutes a completely relaxed dose.) The third circumstance linked to this difficult experience was that the night before the “test”, I watched a film which was very enjoyable but also proved very emotionally impactful: Bliss, starring the brilliant Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek. If you’re not about to take psychedelics, I highly recommend watching it.

And finally, the last pivotal element: several months had passed since my last ceremony and in that time I had quit smoking. A shaman friend of mine had warned me, in fact, that the experiences would be on a whole other level of intensity. And yet, despite 4 major clues telling me that I should be careful, I proceed calmly, without even an inkling of what was about to happen.

At 11 in the morning on Halloween, I light a candle on the little altar in my flat – which has not been prepared specifically for the trip – and recite a prayer a few times before taking the 3 and a half ground grams with some lemon juice. Having the whole place to myself, I make myself comfortable on the sofa in the living room and wait, not focusing on anything in particular unlike how I would usually approach a formal ceremony. After about 20 minutes – so, rather quickly – I start to feel the sensations coming on thick and fast. Straight away, an anxious feeling comes over me.

And we’re off!

The first thing which presents itself is a feeling of estrangement from my home. It’s difficult to describe. Despite the many years I’ve lived here it’s as if it were suddenly alien to me – or rather familiar, and alien at the same time – and from that “distopian” sensation, fear rises. From there begins the absurd phenomenon through which wherever I steer my attention, my energy follows, intensifying my thoughts. The same thing happens on the astral plane. In fact, there were moments in which I thought I had just died!

Fear of madness came first, and from there (in a sequence beyond my control) came fear of feeling sick, of losing consciousness, of not being able to hack it, of my companion coming home early… No matter where I steered my attention, that fear grew dizzyingly and immersively. It’s hard to portray just how difficult that fear of insanity was. It was as though an abyss was about to fall through within me and invade me. It was worse than death.

Allies

The trip lasted over 4 hours, but wasn’t quite the unrelenting panic attack my reader had described. I had more understanding than him, not to mention more experience and more allies. The foremost and best ally when confronting a difficult voyage is total unreserved trust in the fungus and its wisdom: the fungus would never hurt me, this dose is safe for me, etc. My second ally was my altar, specifically a smiling photo of my spiritual teacher, Rishi, to whom I had turned many times and who had always given me the strength to power through. The third ally, music, came in the form of my marvellous Playlist 2, which pulled me from that Hell a number of times and brought me to the point of view of my Soul where I cried tears of joy over the beauty of what I was experiencing with such clarity. I simply cannot explain this transcendent perspective from which I saw and understood the meaning of everything – the meaning both of this particular trip, and of my life in general. Every musician in the playlist was a precious friend at that moment. I am grateful to each and every one of them, as inspired music always comes to one’s aid when one needs it most.

Techniques which also proved useful allies were: washing my face with cold water, pacing back and forth, and taking slow, full breaths. I also reminded myself that it was only a matter of time before the experience passed, and thought to eat some honey or sugar to keep my energy levels up and abate emotional and mental pressure. It wasn’t that I wanted to escape. In fact, part of me found all of it very interesting and wanted to stay in that state to just observe.

Opportunity

Amidst all the imaginable hardship of a challenging trip, I still felt curious about how it would go. After all, in just a few hours it would all be over, so sticking around to see where it took me would be worth it! What an opportunity to explore just how intense thoughts and emotions can be – with the relative physical consequences, that is. The somatisation I experienced came in the form of pain and tension throughout my whole body. The only thing one can do in that moment is remain present and strive at all costs to at once hold on and stay in touch with the sensation of what is!

How can we make sure these allies – which truly make a difference in difficult moments – are always at our disposal? There are surely many ways, but I know only one: treat your trip as a Ceremony rather than simply an experience. In other words, set the stage specifically for the occasion. The spectacle is a manifestation of itself, supported in the safest way by allies and perhaps a legitimate trip sitter. (Read more on what constitutes the ideal trip sitter HERE, and deeper exploration of Ceremony HERE, where I describe the psychological usefulness of ritual in particular, as well as ceremonial rules one must follow to trip in the safest possible manner.) I for one ignored those rules on this particular occasion. In fact, I underestimated the mushrooms themselves, thinking of the trip as a test, a simple experiment, whereas I ought to have guaranteed myself maximum protection with a formal ceremony.

Need for a special kind of Set & Setting 

I was fortunate enough to have an altar set up at my disposal. This time more than ever, the photo of Rishi really made a difference. He was right there with me, helping me through. Without the altar, just like the music in my playlist, the whole trip would have been much harder.

Formal ceremony is a particular Set & Setting which provides one with the best protection against a bad trip and allows one get the most out of the experience, gaining self-knowledge on a battlefield which has been specially prepared, where one is in the best position to confront the adversities of challenging trips.

I happened to have at hand 2 ceremonial setting essentials which did make a difference. This confirms to me just how much safer and more beneficial a mushroom trip is in a ceremonial context. ‘Ceremonial’ does not necessarily mean religious, but rather indicates a safe stage dictated by rules and rituals which ensure a level of protection and assistance, supported by images and symbols which speak to the human unconscious and to the most subtle and sensitive aspect of one’s being. In moments of psychedelic intensity, during which deep and powerful parts of you manifest themselves uncontrollably, it is wise to prepare some helpful reference points in the name of self-protection.

Conclusion

I still feel a surge of emotion when I think back to that Halloween. It’s more than a memory, as just thinking about it is enough to relive it and find myself back in those moments once again as if they were happening now! I experienced some flashbacks, in fact, while writing this, to the point where I had to stop just to reconnect with my surroundings.

Several weeks after the trip, I began a cycle of microdosing, taking 0.2 dry grams of the same mushrooms early in the morning. I would take the capsule then walk around my flat and do my little morning tasks. One of these is a protection mantra which I assigned myself a few years ago: the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra. While reciting, a profound feeling stole over me out of nowhere. I jumped to my feet, afraid. What was that?! It felt like a panic attack, but I can’t be too sure because it took me completely by surprise. I hadn’t felt anything like it in all my life! Then amidst this strong sensation, I managed to direct my attention elsewhere and everything went back to normal. In fact, I finished the recitation without any further issues. The same thing happened to me twice that day. Both of these times, the trigger was the word ‘fear’, mentioned casually while talking about my cat confronting new things: travelling in the car, and visiting the vet “without fear”. Just hearing myself say the word induced a panic attack, which I diffused both times by steering my attention to something else, just as I had tried to do while racked with terror during my trip.

Never resist, for resistance can worsen the situation. What does work is trying to think of other things, for example being aware of one’s body and looking around at one’s surroundings. One of the times, I was in the car and I stopped at a red light to better adjust my mirrors. This simple task was enough to calm me down.

I’ve thought about the Halloween trip a lot, and about the microdosing side effects – which only happened that day, then never again – to try and understand what it all means for me. Life isn’t psychedelic only when you consume mushrooms. What I felt was merely an amplification of something which not only exists in the midst of a trip but is in fact a constant.

The ways in which one can integrate a difficult trip are numerous. My second book deals with exactly this subject – English translation is in progress, will be ready soon – but this time the answers came to me through paying closer attention to normal daily events. A vital part of the answers came in the form of 2 interviews I found on YouTube. Every day I take a little walk  and listen to interviews or conferences through my headphones. A couple of these happened to include something which gave me some clarity, and as further proof of the message of the experience I’m adding below the email from my terrorised reader (the one who suffered the 5 hour panic attack). The message I received won’t be important to you in and of itself, but just know that it really is true that “Bad” trips are in fact the ones with the most potential to endow one with new knowledge. There’s no teacher quite like a bad trip!

No one can deny that the peculiar times we are living in are intense and difficult. Whether one sees these as an economic health crisis or merely a sign of changing times is unimportant. What’s evident to everyone is that a change of pace is occurring and everything around us is being profoundly altered. Fear, madness and death… There is a great abundance of these primordial emotions at this moment in time. Embarking on a psychedelic voyage is riskier now that it has been in decades, particularly if you live in an urban area or somewhere far removed from nature.

I invite you all to be careful, pay close attention to Set & Setting and, better still, to utilise carefully prepared ceremonies, so that something of great benefit can be obtained even in these confusing times.

Bon voyage, and be happy!

* psilocybin fungi are never truly hallucinogens. Read more on that HERE to find out why!

Links to resources and insights:
Contraindications to the use of mushrooms
The Set & Setting in 10 essential points
Heroic dose
Extreme dose: 20 grams
The Ideal Trip Sitter
The Mushroom Ceremony
Books I’ve written about magic mushrooms

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