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My First Psychedelic Experience! Toad Medicine—Terrifying but Deeply Healing

Started by JWC, April 06, 2020, 12:45:45 PM

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I was inspired to explore psychedelics as a means of healing from trauma after listening to interviews with Chris Bache (author of LSD and the Mind of the Universe) and Michael Pollan, and especially reading Michael Pollan's book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. A part of me had always felt inexplicably tethered to early traumatic events, in a way and at a depth that seemed to elude the reach of conventional therapies or spiritual practices such as meditation. I was at a loss as to how to proceed, and Michael Pollan's persuasive presentation of the ability of psychedelics to facilitate deep healing compelled me to want to give them a try.

Incidentally, toad (or 5MeO-DMT more generally) wasn't the first psychedelic on my list. Initially, my only knowledge of this particular psychedelic was limited to Michael Pollan's recounting of his own toad journey. And while Pollan counts this experience among the most powerful of his life, which immediately afterward engendered in him a sense of deep gratitude to be alive, he nonetheless clearly found it terrifying and left him unsure how to integrate what he experienced into his understanding of himself and the world.

Given the stark intensity and radical nature of the 5MeO-DMT experience, and never having had a psychedelic experience before, the idea of a toad journey as my first leap into the world of psychedelics seemed analogous to learning to swim by being dropped into the ocean! What changed my mind was hearing from friends who shared their experiences and who connected me with an experienced guide. I heard stories of healing and transformation to supplement what I learned from Michael Pollan. In fact, I began to be attracted to toad precisely because it so completely disables the ego—the less capacity I had to interfere with the process, I thought, perhaps the greater the depth of healing.
In early February, 2020, I attended a retreat with five other participants, our guide, and two assistants. We arrived in the morning and began in a circle with introductions and personal sharing, guided journaling, and preparatory talks and exercises, including learning how to inhale from the pipe. From noon until dinner time, each of us journeyed individually with our guide and one of the assistants present, while the other participants spent time in reflective solitude, focusing primarily on the intentions we were bringing to this experience.

By this time, my intention had already been finely honed. I am an adoptee, and had in fact been placed for adoption twice, as an infant and again at age nine. I had just spent the previous year discovering and meeting my biological family. Needless to say, this entailed a whole range of intense emotions and reframing my relationships, sense of identity and life story. The search itself through DNA testing was like a weeks-long, sleepless, adrenaline-saturated high-stakes treasure hunt—contacting 2nd and 3rd cousins online, gathering clues, building family trees, connecting the dots in the hope that they would point me to my biological parents, which eventually they did. Finally connecting with and meeting biological family ran the gamut from elation to disappointment and back again. In any case, by the time I arrived for the toad retreat, I had reached a point of relative closure: lifelong questions were answered, the story of my biological origins filled in, and the foundations for new family relationships were established. I felt ready to more deeply let go of the enormous emotional pull my fragmented past and past broken relationships continued to exert on me. I was ready to sever the tether.

When it was my turn to receive the toad medicine, I sat on a mattress with my legs extended straight out before me, with my guide seated at my side. He held the pipe to my lips and regulated its flow, while behind me sat his assistant with her back to mine, holding me up so that I wouldn't fall backward without support. I inhaled slowly as instructed. Within a very short time, I noticed the gentle electronic music in the background begin to stutter, and the patterns on the mattress sheet start to move. I kept inhaling. A moment later, everything disappeared.

Although I had read accounts of similar experiences, nothing could have prepared me for the utterly disorienting, immediate collapse of my ability to position myself in time and place, and seeming to watch every last vestige of identity rapidly disappear. All of this gave rise to the unnerving sensation that I had no point of reference to say whether I, or someone who may or may not have been me, had just been in a room smoking from a pipe on a mattress with two guides. Had that been a dream? Perhaps. Would any of it come back? I don't know! I certainly didn't know the way back to wherever or whenever or whoever that was, so it was completely out of my hands (after the experience, one of my guides made the comment that I sounded confused, which makes me suspect that I was more in contact with my body than I realized and was evidently vocalizing some of my bewilderment). My last memory of this phase of the experience was the sensation of being a kind of speck of unmanifest potential in a timeless abyss, as if I could manifest as anyone or anything in any place or time, or not, and there would be no discontinuity or disruption. This was not the bliss or unitive consciousness or boundless love others report from their experiences, but simply the total, penetrating negation of any reference point from which to affirm that I, or anything else, exist.

While the structures of my ego were dissolved into this undifferentiated state, my body was evidently quite busy. In fact, according to my guides, I moved around quite a bit, making repetitive motions, vocalizations, and crying strongly suggestive of birth or infancy. After the fact, I only recalled having the vaguest sense of being tossed about, and that this may have been excruciating. And yet I cannot say that I experienced any pain. After all, I had no distinct sense of self with which to experience or identify with these bodily events, nor the capacity to track the time and space that constituted them. This is challenging to recall or convey, but the important point for me is that, during my journey, my body was seemingly able to surface and evacuate trauma without ego interference or even any clear registering of the experience on my memory.

"Re-entry" happened in stages and, given the time distortion, I am unclear of the chronology of these stages. The most beautiful re-entry point as I remember it, and probably the first, was when I heard the clear, gentle, resonant voice of my guide close by. "Okay! Voices are good. Keep talking," I encouraged. Next, I opened my eyes to see a woman's face smiling down at me. I recognized her but still thought I might be seeing a vision, partly because she didn't seem to move and because I was still in a somewhat undifferentiated state, unable to fully distinguish between self and other. I teasingly asked, "Are you a goddess?" When she responded, I concluded that she was indeed 'real,' and therefore I must be 'real.' These initial contacts with my guides welcoming me anew to the world were incredibly reassuring.

At another point in my re-entry, I was crying while my heart seemed to be spinning and stretching. I told my guides through my tears, "I don't appreciate my wife as much as I should," to which I remember one of them replying, "Well, now you do." I do remember reflecting or somehow receiving an insight or vision, at some point when I doubted whether I ever existed, that, while I don't know about the rest of what I thought was my life, it sure would be sad there had never been my-wife-and-I. This was the one, clear cognitive-emotional insight from the journey that I wanted to make sure I remembered: how, when everything fell away, I recognized that the love my wife and I share is one of the most precious gifts I've been given in this life. In hindsight, while this insight is still valid for me, I also wonder whether she was the one thing I had the most difficulty letting go of during ego dissolution. Or was this upwelling of love simply what emerged when the ego was no longer exerting itself? In any case, this is an extremely important recognition for me from the journey, that there is a wellspring of love within me that I rarely tap into or allow myself to feel or express in a full way.

Eventually, I managed to get up on my hands and knees, collapse, and rise again. I kept patting my body and looking around the room, trying to assure myself that this was indeed "my" body and the same room as before, and not a vision that would shortly disappear. Finally, I was helped out onto the deck where there was another mattress with blankets, and handed a cup of chamomile tea. I drank the tea, got up, and walked back to the house where the other participants were. The whole experience, from first sitting on the mattress to finishing my tea on the deck, took about an hour, by which time I was completely returned to body and mind.

Upon arriving home the next day, I soon began to notice a shift in my bodily experience. For one, while my sexual energy felt very strong, I noticed that a certain familiar compulsive quality to that energy seemed significantly diminished. As the week unfolded, I also noticed other changes in how I experienced my body, bodily habits, and my attitude toward my body. Although we were told not to drink alcohol for the first week, I noticed that I had simply lost my taste for it, even though I had typically drank a beer or glass of wine most evenings. I was no longer attracted to strongly caffeinated drinks, and switched from my morning coffee to tea. I also lost my taste for strong sweets. I noticed that I seemed to spontaneously moderate my food better, and not eat more than was necessary. I was tending to sleep better at night and no longer experienced as heavy of a middle-of-the-day drop in energy. In a subsequent conversation with my guide, I was told that these kinds of changes may or may not endure, but that, if any of the old desires or habits did return, simply try to integrate them with intentionality. I found this advice of great help and see this initial period of freedom from compulsive habits post-toad as helping me make positive changes in my life, from what I eat and drink to what kinds of music I listen to.

More significantly, along with changes at a bodily level, I also started to notice a shift in my relationships. As mentioned above, I experienced a heightened appreciation of my relationship with my wife. I also sensed greater peace, acceptance, and detachment around certain familial relationships that had been painful or difficult. I felt more appreciative of friendships with women generally, as if some subtle barrier had been removed. Overall, similar to my relationship to food and drink, I seemed to have a more finely honed sense for distinguishing between relationships that are life-enhancing and those that are life-draining—I felt greater attraction to the former, and greater emotional detachment from the latter. Additionally, I felt less of my habitual angst (inwardly grumbling and dreaming of greener pastures elsewhere) in my relationship to the circumstances in which I live.

Spiritually, the experience of ego disillusion has amplified my basic existential curiosity: "What am I? What is this?" This curiosity has heightened my dedication to spiritual practices such as meditation, especially practices that emphasize simple surrender. Mystics through the ages and across traditions have taught that what we call life is, in fact, from the perspective of our true nature, like a dream or passing thought in a boundless ocean of unitive consciousness and loving communion, and that ultimately we are that boundlessness. While I wouldn't categorize my toad experience as "mystical," per se, I do believe that it has helped point the way toward deeper spiritual realization through relaxing out of identification with the limitations of my time-and-matter-bound sense of a separate self. Relatedly, I sense that the experience of the radical ephemerality of the self has increased my willingness to let go of aspects of my past.

In short, I found this less-than-an-hour toad journey to be deeply healing in its outcomes, even if the experience itself was profoundly disorienting and even frightening. My bodily and relational well-being has noticeably improved, my spiritual aspirations and practice have been enlivened, and I have greater clarity about what I truly value in life. While it hasn't been a panacea, I do sense that this experience has facilitated a quantum leap up the ladder of developmental healing, giving me a measure of freedom from the bonds of early, deeply embedded trauma.