In 2020, I participated as a speaker in the second Stati Generali della Psichedelia, having recently published my book The Magic Mushroom User’s Guide – now available not only in Italian but also in English. Despite coming in the guise of an instructional manual on the general use of psilocybin fungi, the book is in fact a guide to the exploration of consciousness and of self-knowledge. Following this, I prepared a speech on consciousness and psychedelia within the most important and persuasive paradigm: the common perception of what this reality we’re living in really is.
A brief premise
Exploration of consciousness is not an exclusive prerogative for psychedelic research (obviously), but if we rule out the traditional mystic paths the deepest insights on this subject are a very product of mankind’s use of psychedelic substances.
There are many, many disciplines which deal with consciousness – philosophy, for example, neurosciences, and neurotechnologies. But today I’m going to be offering some reflections I’ve gleaned from being a longtime experienced psychonaut, a journey which has involved a great deal of research as well as personal and spiritual development, beginning exactly 40 years ago.
In order to talk properly about consciousness and psychedelia, we need to start with the basics. Specifically, I want to begin by looking at what we perceive as reality. And to be able to do this, it’s helpful to familiarise oneself with the concept of paradigms.
What is a paradigm?
A paradigm is a vision of the world shared by most people in a certain period in time. For this reason, paradigms tend to be taken for granted, a little like a fish might take for granted the water around it. Think of shared paradigms as experiences so immersive that they cannot be perceived until one manages to see them from the outside. And the psychedelic experience is one such occasion in which one’s “perceptive point of view” can change drastically enough to make one aware that there are other ways of seeing the world which don’t align with the view shared by the majority of the population.
The dominant paradigm of today
So what is the paradigm that’s shaping and determining the vision that modern humans have of today’s world and reality in general?
The strongest but most “invisible” paradigm is mechanistic, through which people and objects of reality are perceived as autonomous agents, separate from each other and ourselves, acting on a cause and effect principle. Who could doubt that objects and people are separate, interacting with each other through defined boundaries?
Everything moves within this paradigm: science, religion, psychology, economy, politics, education… or at least that’s the way it is now. In fact, almost everyone assumes that consciousness is confined within the body and that the rest of the world exists outside of that boundary. If I extend a hand and pick up a glass, I’m acting upon a universe which lies unquestionably outside of me, as I’m always inside my body and I act within a setting external to and separate from me.
A new paradigm
But for almost a century, science has described a new concept of the universe, one which tells us that people and things are not objects which can be accurately described as separate from us but inside of us, within our consciousness. This new paradigm tells us that the world is fabricated by our brain and is therefore an external projection of what we are inside.
Exploration of consciousness is one of the most important themes in the human quest for knowledge and in psychedelic research in particular. In light of the new quantic paradigm, the theme becomes the exploration of the universe, which is much more interesting.
But who exactly undertakes this exploration into the universe and consciousness itself? For some time now I’ve been using psilocybin to understand who I am, but above all to comprehend who wants to know who I am!
What is consciousness?
‘Consciousness of existing as an individual is not the sum of one’s thoughts, emotions and sensations, but a deep-rooted awareness of “being there”, consciousness of existing as an individual unit. According to the new quantic paradigm, we can’t be certain of the existence of the world around us. In fact, we cannot trust in a series of sensorial images. Meanwhile, one thing we can be sure of though is this strange and hard to define sensation of being there, that is of being someone or something who lives inside a body. For the sake of convention, we define this sensation as the “I”, while having no idea what this is. Philosophers, chemists and physicists have never managed to work it out, and yet they all live under the pretence of knowing what they mean when they put their hands to their chests and say “I”.’
Many thanks to Salvatore Brizzi for this definition. Brizzi is a writer and lecturer from Turin who I find is a constant source of inspiration and knowledge. I cite him to also pay homage to the city which virtually hosted this important convention.
If we take a closer look at “consciousness”, straight away we see how tightly linked it is to awareness and understanding. Quite often these terms are complimentary or used in conjunction with each other or even synonymously. And in fact, for most people, they are equivalent concepts. From a certain point of view, they are inseparable, and even I myself wonder how they can all exist in human beings but not in animals – consciousness without awareness – but once we get into specifics, consciousness and awareness are not synonymous at all but distinctly different to one another.
As a psychonaut – i.e. as someone who explores states of consciousness – I wonder if it’s better to say “states of consciousness” or “states of awareness”. But given that neither of the two are objectionable, I’d arbitrarily define consciousness as as a quality linked to the totality of psychic facts, or rather to the functions and functioning of the mind, while awareness is a quality of being which is placed at a supramental level, an intuitive quality. Remaining in my wanton vision, I’d say that it’s almost as if it’s the same thing on two different octaves. So let’s take a better look at this idea.
Consciousness makes me say “I”, while awareness allows me to say “I know that I am”. Therefore, the second is in a meta position in relation to the first, on that second octave so to speak. And again, consciousness is identified while awareness is disidentified or at least is aware of being identified. In fact, the use of the word “I” presupposes an identification, which is present in both cases, but awareness “knows” that this identification exists, meanwhile consciousness is not necessarily cognisant.
This is an interesting and useful point for my research: the concept of identification. And it’s most easily understood in relation to psychedelic experiences, because it’s something all psychonauts have experienced. Think about it: the trip always begins with pure identification, then often leads to a state of disidentification. As a psychonaut this has happened to me a fair bit, and ever more since focusing completely on my experiences as just exploration of consciousness, on staying in that sensation of being, undistracted by solicitations of the thinking mind, the famous monkey-brain.
Through the years, I’ve realised that one arrives at understanding by passing through conscious experimentation in different states of consciousness, and psilocybin mushrooms are masters at making your consciousness and your mind “short circuit”. This is their task during the more intense phases of a trip, in which everything strives to overwhelm one’s mind – or at least that part of the mind which is rational and aware.
What is the mind?
I’m not of the opinion that the mind is a subject that’s particularly worthy of being investigated, if not to understand sufficiently to know how to use it. The mind is an instrument which allows us some duality in the way we act – which, in light of the quantic paradigm, we know to be an illusion.
For a transitive property the mind is also an illusion: useful, sure, but not real. This concept is distabilisable for those who have never been in certain psychedelic states, in which one experiences existing as usual even without the presence of the mind. Anyone who has tried this knows all too well that this “mindless” state is perceived exclusively as a condition of joy and lucidity, in which awareness of Being is the only thing left. In absence of the mind, one can experience moments of truly ineffable beauty.
The mind, moreover, is intrinsically linked to the mechanistic paradigm, because both are dualistic in nature. We can find evident proof of this by simply observing our reality, which (in concordance with the dominant paradigm) is defined in part by its duality. Everything we perceive is dualistic: we use dualistic language; everything around us is polarised; and this fact is innate and implicit in the reality we manage to represent. This is not a problem exactly, but a given, and constitutes an aspect of the human experience. The key word once more here is identification.
That the mind wants to explore consciousness is paradoxical, as this would involve investigating that which it is made of, like an eye wanting to see itself. But fortunately we have various tools at our disposal. The mirror, for instance, serves the eye just as psychedelics serve the mind.
Here’s something interesting to consider: how exactly do psychedelics help us explore consciousness? A psychedelic trip always begins with a strong presence of the mind: identification with the mind is total, to the extent that we can even feel anxious and agitated (evident signs of a psychophysical identification). This is our ordinary state – we are identified with the mind, and so it is natural to use it to explore ourselves (or at least this is the way it always starts!).
As we’ve already seen, the mind however is an inadequate tool. Here is where psychedelics come to the rescue, and they do so in a manner which is rather counterintuitive. In short, psychedelics don’t “help” the mind but rather put it on stand-by so as not to impede the inner investigation. This is not to say that the mind is detrimental in this interior work, but here more than ever it’s good to know how to use it in a way which allows it to help rather than hinder us.
In saying that psychedelics put the mind on stand-by, what I mean is that they interrupt our identification with it. In that moment, the mind can be used as an analytical tool if and when we want to, contrary to how the mind is normally of use to us. Have a look into the “Default Mode Network” to better understand the operating mechanism of this phase.
How exactly should one use – or avoid using – the mind while disidentified?
According to ancient traditions of wisdom, the most useful investigation one can conduct is to ask oneself ‘WHO wants to explore consciousness?’ or ‘WHO wants to meditate?’ and the only way one can allow oneself to find the answer is to have no other goal than staying in that sensation of being and waiting. Indeed, this self-investigation consists in the act of dwelling, i.e. in staying within oneself, and in the state of “rememberance of self”. Only in this manner can one discover what the “I” truly is. This is the ultimate goal of the human quest: Knowledge of the Self; Temet Nosce; Gnōthi Sautón!
Exploring consciousness with psychedelics to reach a conscious realisation – or Awakening – is tempting, but ultimately impossible both under the influence of psychedelics and in ordinary states of consciousness because aware realisation – or Awakening – is not dualistic. Therefore, one cannot find the origin of action in duality. Mind, human will, or whatever other quality we can engage with to reach this result are not suitable for the job. It would be like wanting to measure the height of a wall with a scale. Dual qualities obstruct us – one would need to want without desiring or act without doing.
The process of realisation is in itself paradoxical – it’s the “result”, so to speak, of an integration of opposites, which you overcome through a supramental realisation. It is intuitive, and not necessarily mental or a result of willpower. This is a paradoxical journey like that of Koan Zen.
The one possible question on consciousness
So what is consciousness? It’s something we’ve been asking in vain for millenia, but do we need to unearth what consciousness is?
I have a Masters degree in GNP and Ericksonian Hypnosis. And in all my years of study and practice I have learned that it doesn’t serve one at all to know what’s inside the mind. In fact, it’s enough to think of it almost like a black box which responds to certain inputs and gives certain outputs in response. Understanding this idea is what one really needs in order to know what to do to obtain concrete and useful results.
Given this, in my mind only one question remains if we want to understand something truly useful about consciousness and psychedelic experience. And what is that question?
Very simply: “Is consciousness an epiphenomenon of the brain, or is the brain an apparatus receiving consciousness?” Or, in other words: “does consciousness exist regardless of my physical apparatus or is it a product of the brain?”
Whatever you think the answer is, clarifying this point is fundamental. Indeed, it is a “sliding door” which determines whatever consideration can be given on any question in life or on the specifics of psychedelic experience.
Finding an answer to this question is more within our reach than the search for WHO is looking for an answer to a question or finding out what consciousness is.
But in fact there is another option: not finding an answer at all. This ignorance is justified only when you’re searching for the answer, and exploring consciousness to understand where the fundamental search originates from. What consciousness is, then, is unimportant because I know for certain that sooner or later everyone will understand. It is only a matter of time.
…Let me finish by saying that the priority is to overcome the widespread prohibition on psychedelic substances – a cause which, unfortunately, my speech does nothing for. Consciousness is a topic of conversation that interests very few people in this world apart from psychonauts, being that there’s just too much other stuff in the spotlight to focus on.
I myself am convinced that the Anglosaxon course is the only one that’s actually viable at the moment. That is, demonstrating the substantial physiological harmlessness of the substances as well as their medical usefulness. The religion of today is none other than “Iodicelascienzah” (“science tells me”), and so scientific approval is undoubtedly the most effective route in determining the outcome of this moment in history. I’m not completely certain that this is the best route – quite the opposite – but at present I can see no alternative.
For me, the question of consciousness and the war being waged against it on all fronts is much more exciting, but I’m under no illusions here. The worst years in this fundamental battle are yet to come.
A bit of a pessimistic conclusion, I know, but I believe it’s realistic, and it isn’t to say that I feel discouraged or downcast. On the contrary, I think this current phase of revocation of fundamental human values is part of a natural cycle in which everything that is happening has already been foretold – take Kali Yuga, an understandable reference for many, for example. I would love to have talked a little on Spirit and spirituality too, which are tightly linked to our use of psychedelic substances, but that would be opening a topic with no hope of conclusion as I had only 15 minutes at my disposal.
Many social and personal difficulties are connected to the lack of an essential human dynamic (Spirit, that is), difficulties which form the foundation for most of the problems one can face during a psychedelic trip! Indeed, Bad Trips are at their heart caused by a lack of faith – not to mention a total lack of inner reference points, which causes us to lose our grip, and ultimately suffer, during certain phases of a psychedelic voyage.
I will soon be publishing a new essay on this topic and related subjects, which I’m in the final stages of editing. As with the first, I’m writing this second book alone, under the shadow of an urgency to create clarity, to reason on who we are and how we can finally connect with ourselves.