The Meaning Hormone
I have received a lot of mail since my post last week. Very different people (I now know there are at least two forklift operators in our community), with different stories and questions, but all finding what we’ve been doing here at PsyPol meaningful. I’m very grateful for these messages and am going to respond to all in due time. I’ll make some of this correspondence public, starting with the excerpt below.
Shawn O’Brien, a retired psychologist with whom I had exchanged some comments before, congratulated me on giving up tobacco and asked some questions about DMT:
Do you ever wonder whether DMT might also affect your health? If it helps your mental health, maybe it would be worth it, I don’t know.
Do you think your interest in DMT is related to existential anxiety? I’m very interested in Terror Management Theory and the work of Sheldon Solomon, as I’ve noted in several comments.
I wrote back:
…On DMT: I don't think it is harmful. It's produced by the human body and the body knows how to break it down very quickly. I don't do it often: I've had maybe a dozen trips in 8-10 years. And I feel better, not worse after I smoke it, both physically and mentally.
I sometimes wonder if DMT deficiency (like vitamin D deficiency) might be a thing.
It's what we call a funny idea: what if “the meaning crisis” we’re in is due to our lowered levels of “the meaning hormone,” and what if that can in turn be explained by some mundane change in our environment? Or better yet, by something equally mundane and romantic: perhaps the issue is light pollution; maybe the pineal gland needs regular exposure to night starry skies in order to secrete a healthy amount of meaning into the system.
And as for existential anxiety, let me try answering with a story.
The DMT flash is notoriously hard to describe (or even to remember properly), but there are a few qualities that are reported more often than others.
It’s the most unexpected thing you’ve ever experienced, but at the same time it is strangely familiar — like landing in an alien world and realizing it once was your home;
It feels very profound, but sometimes people feel let down that all this profundity takes form of a fucking cartoon;
It’s very intense and very rich visually;
There is often a sense of a presence, a sentience one is in communication with (lately, the term of art has been “entities”);
It lasts between 10 and 30 minutes;
It feels like interacting with reality on the most fundamental level: as if what we normally deal with is a multiplicity of lower-dimensional projections of a higher-dimensional process, and DMT makes that process directly observable.
That’s how I felt in one of my trips, while a group of cold-eyed, airy, angel-like characters were urging me, very intensely, to understand something — or everything. Their attitude was: this is very important; there's no time to waste; your participation is needed; pay attention; make an effort; come on, come on.
At times I felt like I was getting closer to “getting it,” and I made appropriate sounds — like "hmmm" and "aha" — and tilted my head in thought.
Then I would lose it and say "hmmm" with a different intonation.
I felt like a fifth-grader trying to solve a physics problem from the sixth grade.
Then something shifted and I realized this whole setup — the entities, their project, the way they were urging me to participate — just did not feel compelling to me. Something was off.
Then, several things happened in parallel: the sounds I was making lowered in pitch, and my head turned to the right slightly; the attention in my body (which I had just remembered I had) moved lower; and the entirety of the trip changed.
I still felt that I was “interacting with reality on the most fundamental level,” it's just that one reality had been swapped for another.
I found myself in a warm, fiery place, with an attractive female deity (or demon) dancing in the middle of it. She was welcoming, sexy, and unassuming. I spent some time enjoying the warmth of this realm. This was a pleasant experience.
Still, after some time, I decided I wasn’t compelled by it either.
If the first place felt like it was lacking warmth and empathy, the second seemed to be lacking meaning. It was a little like having sex and then accepting the fact that there’s no real connection: the morning sun wakes a young couple up, they cuddle for a few minutes more, then one of them asks, “Do you want some coffee?” and the other one goes, “Yeah. Actually, I should get going. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Now knowing that navigation is possible in this meta-reality, I went back to the cold, masculine, meaning-oriented spirits. Still not compelled by what they were pushing, I returned to the sexy fiery lady. Then paused in the middle, at equal distances between the two realms — and felt like a complete fool. I was offered different ways to experience reality and rejected both, as if the experiencing is optional — but it never stops, does it?
I remained in indecision until the end of the trip.
(The next time, I went in fully determined to experiment with my newfound ability to move through the DMT realm, and this whole issue of choice dissipated: now I was coming in with the intention to try things instead of observing them passively, and I was able to create my reality following my own tastes. If I felt it needed humor, I added humor. If I felt it needed sex, I added sex. I mixed these qualities and energies as I felt moved to, and it was a very fulfilling and pleasurable experience.)
The meaning realm from the first trip made it seem that there’s only one thing happening in this world, and we are all parts of this process — the universe trying to understand itself. The erotic realm felt like the only thing happening is a universal sex act — everything’s fucking, the whole cosmic dance, whether of planets or sub-molecular particles, is the same kind of dance that men and women in love do in their bedrooms.
I am recounting all this just to say that anxiety seems like another one of these qualities that can be made feel fundamental.
I'm sure somebody had a similar trip (in fact, I think John Horgan might have) where reality felt neither like an eternal search for meaning nor an eternal sex act, but instead like an eternal panic attack.
God's freaking out. He’s distracting himself by creating us and our worlds.
“We're freaking out (about death). We are trying to distract ourselves by keeping busy with culture and tasks and pursuits of different sorts” — isn't that close to the premise of Terror Management Theory?
To come back to your original question: I think my interest in DMT is easiest to explain in terms of my desire to figure out what's going on and how to relate to it, or to act within it.
For me, the dominant negative quality of the human experience is a mix of confusion and indecision — I keep forgetting what life is and I get constantly stuck and distracted; I stumble through it half-blindly.
DMT helps me to both see it more clearly and move through it with more grace — but, as I said, these experiences are short-lived and the insights are hard to retain. My psychedelic career is summed up very well by a Bill Callahan line: “I used to be sort of blind. Now I can sort of see.”
Please keep your emails coming. I may take me some time to respond, but respond I will. I’m at email@example.com.
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