My Unorthodox peek at Enlightenment


Alice understood it a lot quicker than me.
The video version of this post is now available here!

My parents introduced me to meditation and the teachings of Buddhism when I was relatively young, and I was always intrigued by the notion of enlightenment. I didn’t quite understand it but it sounded like either a spontaneous attainment of superpowers, suddenly becoming a super genius or growing a halo over your head. The only problem with it was that the path to enlightenment was paved with oh so boring meditation. I was thinking “If I have to just sit on the floor for years, maybe enlightenment isn’t all that great…” Nowadays I meditate frequently, but back then the only part I enjoyed was when one of our cats would come by and play with my hand or a thread coming of my shorts.

You’ve probably heard a description of what enlightenment is or what the experience of it is like. It’s often hard to imagine the experience – it’s usually presented as having made a sudden realization about life, maybe with a mention of a feeling of one-ness with everything. I used to think “If they’ve realized something, why don’t they just tell us what it is!” The Wax on Wax off scene in the Karate Kid bugged me when I first saw it- I was thinking “This is stupid – just tell him why he has to wax and paint all this stuff” Sadly, in the way explaining a joke ruins the punchline, you have to get it for yourself.

Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newburg describes the enlightenment “Big E” experiences a slightly more specifically:  …the Big E experiences are usually those experiences that are kind of life changing – they’re mind blowing, they change everything about the way you think about the world, about life about death, about spirituality, whatever it is – it changes everything about who you are. For example one of the experiences that people often have is a very profound sense of an intensity of the experience. The experience is the most powerful experience they have ever had. And if there are specific elements within it, if it’s something that they’ve seen, if it’s some vision of light or something like that, it’s the most beautiful light they have ever seen, it’s the most beautiful music they’ve ever seen. It’s the most intense feeling of love that they’ve ever seen. So whatever it is, it’s this very very powerfully intense experience…

I remember hearing of a Zen teacher in Tokyo who claimed to have reached Satori (enlightenment) and despite not even having met the man, I unfairly doubted him. I thought “Who just says they’re enlightened? He’s not enlightened.” I think it would be natural for most people to be skeptic at first when hearing such a bold claim. Ironically, you may have had a similar reaction to the title of this article, thinking: “What makes this person think he can speak on enlightenment?”

Now- I am certainly not making the audacious claim that “I am enlightened”. What I am trying to say is that I had an experience two Saturdays ago that included a massive realization about life, the experience changed how I think about the world, and the specific elements within that experience were particularly intense. I’m only saying that, while temporary, was a truly enlightening experience.

A good friend of mine once said to me “You know, I don’t mean this in a bad way, but you always seem to be looking for a shortcut to things.” Right she was, for I didn’t achieve this experience by long and arduous bouts of meditation- I had some assistance. I’ll attempt to explain the experience, but first a bit of explanation on how I got there is in order.

Say No to Drugs, Kids!
When I write, I try not to preach to the converted- I want to open up people to new ideas. This is particularly difficult to do with the topic I’m about to go into. In Japan, where I live,  this is especially the case as I know the topic makes people very uncomfortable. In fact I was having a conversation with one of my Japanese friends over dinner recently and I was talking to him about a substance that in low doses temporarily improves eyesight and in a single higher dose can actually cure depression and addiction. He somewhat excitedly asked “Well what is it?” The moment I said it was the hallucinogenic Psilocybin mushrooms his expression morphed to disinterest – the kind of  way someone hearing about a fantastic new App utters a disappointed “Oh.” when you mention the App is not available for their phone’s OS. Then when I mentioned I had tried them myself (despite explaining it was in a purely legal situation), his expression quickly changed to worry.

For most people, LSD (Acid) is what comes to mind when the word hallucinogen comes up. It’s easily understandable that the general public assumes LSD is highly dangerous, considering the Controlled Substance Act claims that LSD has no potential for medical use and a high potential for abuse. This was despite its positive applications like: psychiatrists having radical success with it in dysfunctional people, and Dr. Humphry Osmond having used it to cure alcoholism in just under 1000 people. In an earlier post, I mentioned how people in Silicon Valley nowadays use it to enhance creativity and productivity. In 1966 LSD became illegal in California for political reasons- basically due to its haphazard use that was causing behavior that were particularly irritating for the U.S. Government. Psilocybin, a naturally occurring substance in certain mushrooms  got lumped in with most known hallucinogens as an illegal Schedule 1 substance in 1970. Based on that, everyone is technically guilty of felony possession of the Schedule 1 substance Dimethyltryptamine, considering it’s an ordinary constituent of our metabolism.

(Photo: Getty)

Psilocybin, the mislabeled and misunderstood medicine
Now, since I can remember, I always accepted hallucinogens as 100% bad. My first exposure to the idea that such substances weren’t dangerous to your health and could actually be positive to your mental health was Roland Griffiths’ TED MED talk. He spoke about how terminally ill cancer patients with a depression or anxiety disorder were showing clinically significant improvements that lasted for 6 months after one session. In a study with cigarette smokers who had multiple failed quit attempts, they were seeing 88% success rate in quitting after 3 sessions. These kinds of results have never been seen in the field of psychiatry. What was particularly intriguing for me was that among the volunteers, 80% rated the experience to be among the top 5 most personally and spiritually significant of their lives, and 90% reported increased life satisfaction and positive behavioural change.

So the substance improves your mental health and it is essentially the opposite of addicting, but what about its toxicity? (If you’ve read my most recent post, you’ll know I’m not keen at all on shortening lifespan.) I was wondering if it was easy to overdose, but what I found was that it’s quite a challenge to do so. Psilocybin in its isolated form is incredibly rare and expensive, which is why virtually everyone using it will take it via ingesting the mushrooms. Based on animal studies, the LD50 (Lethal dose) for Psilocybin is about 285mg/kg (129mg/lb). Psilocybin content in dry mushrooms varies from .2% to 2.3%. (Let’s use the median at 1%). So how many grams of dried mushrooms would I have to take for it to be lethal? I weigh 77kg (169lb) so I would need to get into my body 21945mg or 21.9 grams of Psilocybin for it to be lethal. That’s just the Psilocybin, which constitutes only 1% of the dried mushrooms. So I would need to eat 2.194kg (4.83 lbs) of dried mushrooms for it to kill me. This is 731 times that of the normal 3 grams necessary to have a trip. If you’ve eaten 1kg of anything in one sitting, your meal was probably free and your picture is up on some wall. For fresh mushrooms, you’d need to eat about 20kg (44lbs). By the way, the most food by weight ever consumed in a competitive eating contest was 21lbs of grits.

Jar of mushrooms
If you manage to finish 25 of these, your meal is on the house!

After understanding all of this, I became open to trying psilocybin mushrooms someday. However, I do enjoy the perks that come with being a law abiding citizen so I had no intent to act on it. That was until I had plans to travel to Europe and learned that in the Netherlands, Psilocybin containing “Magic Truffles” are completely legal.

Giggling at the Cosmic Joke
Long story short – I tried the truffles. While describing the experience is almost as difficult as describing the color purple to a blind person, I’ll give it a shot.

I tried a bit more than one serving of the Magic Truffles the first Saturday that I arrived in Amsterdam. It took a while to kick in and 30 minutes after eating them I was about to conclude that the batch was bad or something when I noticed my surroundings were much more intriguing. I wasn’t hallucinating, everything was simply… more interesting. In particular, the lines on my palm were much more thought provoking than they had ever been. After about 5 minutes of examining my hand, it was apparent this was not a dud batch. Now things started to look different. A painting on the wall of my AirBnB started to dance and shift in and out of 3D-ness and I remember saying “What!!” aloud when a new riff popped up in the music that I was listening to. “How did they make the guitar sound like that??!?”

If all this was the start of a roller coaster ride when the car is being pulled up by a chain along the track, what came next was the fun, surprising and slightly scary descent. Suddenly I was seeing a lot of things very rapidly. Sorry to disappoint, but I wasn’t seeing dragons growing out of my nails, it was more like a more vivid version of daydreaming about something in your head. The images didn’t obstruct my ability to discern the reality around me, I was just able to visualize things in my “mind’s eye” much more clearly. Except, it wasn’t like I was choosing what to visualize, my brain had basically sat me down in a tour bus that was going worryingly above the speed limit.

I struggled to keep up as my brain zipped me through a hyperspeed review of what I knew about the big bang, the advent of life on earth, evolution, my life up until now; then it zoomed out and I was placed in something like that space ship Neil Degrasse Tyson pilots in the new “Cosmos”. Then out of nowhere a spark went off in my head and this burst of laughter sprung out of me. This was me experiencing the so called “Cosmic Giggle” – which is like “getting” the most massive joke.

To put this in perspective: my Dad’s famous horse joke goes like this: “A horse walks into a bar and The bartender says, ‘Hey! Why the long face?” In your head, the moment you put the the fact that horses naturally have long faces along with the fact that “long face” is a phrase that refers to an expression of sadness, you have a laugh (maybe). Except, when I “got” this Cosmic Joke, it was like putting everything that I knew about my life and the world around me into one massive punchline and I proceeded to giggle my ass off for a very long while (All the while saying “What the fuck!”, “That’s a good one!” and “I get it I get – it it’s all bullshit”). If I had to attempt to describe the punchline, it would be that I accepted that I am going to die no matter what and that’s quite alright; trying to wrench some meaning out of life in the meantime is utterly ridiculous. Then again, a joke isn’t so funny when it’s explained.

When you attain Satori, nothing is left to you at that moment but to have a good laugh.             (Photo: Alan Watts)

This “trip” was one of three. The second trip was primarily recreational, I had a nice odd time at the park. For the third trip, I was on a mission. I had been meaning to achieve a “Heroic Dose”, a term coined by Terence McKenna for a particularly strong trip that is done with a spiritual goal in mind. A Heroic Dose requires 5 grams of dried mushrooms which is a little over twice as much as someone would take for recreational purposes. I assumed I had built up a tolerance from the past two trips so I took the equivalent of 3 times a normal dose. This is where I had the enlightening breakthrough.

So if the experience of the cosmic giggle in the first trip was like walking up to a house and opening the door to see what is inside, then the Heroic trip was was like being shot through a cannon and busting through the window. This time I didn’t have the capacity to giggle because the intensity of it all was many orders of magnitude higher. Any sense of self I had completely dissolved and I experienced the strongest feelings of contentment, belonging, compassion, amazement, love and a couple other emotions I didn’t know I could experience in this massive burst. 

Something like this-ish.

I was sure I was dead and thought “So this is why we die. So we can finally experience this. … and Death is what we we’re supposed to fear from the moment we begin existing? How silly.” This thought wasn’t words in my head or a subvocalization, it was just a spark at the time. It wasn’t until my ego came back online that I could even put it into words. When my sense of self reappeared, it was like being reborn with a complete lack of fear. The thought that I ever had any fear of failure, rejection, embarrassment, or anything made me chuckle.

[I’ll link to the long and strange details of the trip here when I finish writing it]

Mushrooms for the masses?
Obviously I do not suggest for anyone to try this unless you are in the proper legal setting. I can’t even guess whether you’ll have a similar experience or even a good experience. Do I think Magic Mushrooms should be legal in more countries? Well I don’t think they should be any more illegal than driving a car. But driving a car without a license is and should be illegal. If you don’t understand how the car works and aren’t sure how to drive it, you’re going to have a bad time and could be a proper pain in the ass for others. If you are mentally stable enough to handle the effects and are wise enough to ensure you are in the proper set and setting when you try Psilocybin, then I can’t think of any reason you should be denied the opportunity to explore your own consciousness.

Now, I’m by no means saying that this is better than enlightenment through meditation and practicing Buddhist principles or even that it’s all that similar. I think it’s incredible how people can condition their mind to such an extraordinary level. Using Psychedelics might sound like cheating or artificial assistance, but I agree with Andrew Newburg’s example that using Psychedelics to have a spiritual experience is no more of a cheat than putting on glasses to see the world around you more clearly. The positive afterglow of enlightenment surely lasts much longer when achieved through meditation as well, since you have been training yourself from the core until the experience arises. To go back to the “looking in the house” analogy, I’d equate someone being truly enlightened as moving in and settling down in that house whereas the psychedelic experience is a brief visit. Some months after your psychedelic experience you might have to come back for another visit if the message has gotten fuzzy.

You can do all the research on the biology and neurochemistry behind it and read all the “trip reports” you want, but none of that will be even close to experiencing it for yourself.

Educate yourself. Stay safe, and keep it legal.

Terence Cropped
“…We’re not gonna learn it from Der Spiegel, from Time Magazine – it doesn’t come like that. Direct experience, your experience, your opinion, your feelings, your sexuality is the only real thing in your universe. Don’t transfer loyalty to ideology to money, to party, to friends. All of these things are outside of the core of your reality and centuries of programming have been laid on to all of us to take away the power of our own direct experience…”
Terence McKenna