#7 Finding meaning through psychedelic integration: Part 1

Man's search for meaning and the role of psychedelic integration in finding it.

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on integration. In the next newsletter, we’ll look at practical ways of doing integration and the framework I will be working with in my own practice. And in part 3 you’ll be hearing from psychedelic integration therapist and member of the Imperial College psychedelic research team, Michelle Baker Jones.

“In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.

And God said, ‘Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.’ And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. ‘What is the purpose of all this?’ he asked politely.

‘Everything must have a purpose?’ asked God.

‘Certainly,’ said man.

‘Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,’ said God.

And He went away.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

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Man’s search for meaning

For thousands and thousands of years, way ahead of the bestselling memoir with the same title, and way before toddlers figured out how to break an adult by asking “but why” for the millionth time, humans naturally selected themselves into a relentlessly inquisitive subspecies. You and I (and oddly enough even your neighbour who writes ‘All lives matter’ in all caps on Facebook), are homo sapiens sapiens. In an interview with Krista Tippett, Jon-Kabat-Zinn explains our condition: “That’s the species name we’ve given to ourselves. And that comes from the Latin sapere, which means ‘to taste’ or ‘to know’. The species that knows and knows that it knows.”

What is it that we know? Well, we know that our knowledge extends only as far as the light of our consciousness can reach, and we’d be fools to believe that was the end of it. Plato, who was no stranger to the potentially entheogenic-fuelled Eleusinian Mysteries, gracefully ascribed to Socrates the humble revelation of “I know I know nothing” - the same profound awareness of the short span of consciousness that’s often muttered by wide-eyed folks emerging from their first psychedelic experiences.

But there’s more to our lives than pure, rational knowledge. Meaning - that special flavour of knowing that makes us leave our beds in the morning - requires a little more. In his wonderful book The Undiscovered Self, Jung talks about the tension between knowledge and understanding as “two diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive attitudes”, where “the positive advantages of knowledge work specifically to the disadvantage of understanding”. The more you think you know something, the less you bother to look past the illusion of knowing and really see it for what it is.

Of course, this illusion applies to both our outer and inner lives. When it comes to the world, we take institutions, society and our process of civilisation for granted. We join the dance of capitalism, careerism, consumerism, nationalism, under the spell that mastering the choreography would eventually soothe the gaping meaning hole in our hearts. We think we know what we’re doing - until the systems break and reveal the massive cracks of inequality and unsustainability they were built on, and our own misunderstandings. When discussing the prevalent loss of faith in the world’s religions, Jung points that our lives continue to run smoothly, in spite of our lack of awareness of what we’re missing. “But when suffering comes, things change very rapidly. One seeks the way out and begins to reflect about the meaning of life and its bewildering experiences.”

And we can be just as blind when it comes to ourselves. As Jung said, “most people confuse ‘self-knowledge’ with knowledge of their conscious ego-personalities. Anyone who has any ego-consciousness at all takes it for granted that he knows himself. But the ego knows only its own contents, not the unconscious and its contents.” Our fear of the unknown, of our own unconscious, prevents us from being our true selves, and from finding real meaning in our brief lives on the planet.

“In order to become whole we must try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth, a truth that may cause pain before giving us a new sphere of freedom. If we choose instead to content ourselves with intellectual ‘wisdom’, we will remain in the sphere of illusion and self deception” - Alice Miller, The Drama of Being a Child

A Jungian approach to integration

To understand integration, we can start by looking at its etymology, which takes us back to the Latin word integrare, meaning to “make whole” or to “begin again” (oh snap). Fast-forwarding down the timeline, we find the French word intégration, which represents the “act of bringing together parts of a whole”.

Immediately, this makes me think of Jung’s concept of individuation, defined as “the process by which a person becomes a psychological in-dividual, that is, a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole’”. In his view, the movement towards wholeness is a perpetual process of seeking balance between consciousness and the unconscious, the ego and the shadow. In this sense, integration is the opposite of dissociation: it’s work and effort we put in so that we reach psychological wholeness.

For the psyche to heal and transform itself, Jung suggests that ego-consciousness must face and integrate a reality that is entirely contrary to its nature. If you’ve believed your entire life that you were undeserving of love, and built your beliefs and attitudes around this, it’s no wonder your ego will have a tough time accepting a psychedelic journey that proves how lovable you actually are (been there, done that). So, in order to facilitate this integration, Jung suggested the need for a method that values the ego consciousness as much as the unconscious material that it’s confronted with. Similar to a first child needing a lot of reassurance that the newborn would not threaten their share of parental love.

The transcendent function, in Jung’s view, is the process of allowing elements of the unconscious to enter consciousness:

“It is a process and a method at the same time. The production of unconscious compensations is a spontaneous process; the conscious realisation is a method. The function is called ‘transcendent’ because it facilitates the transition from one psychic condition to another by means of the mutual confrontation of opposites.” - Carl Jung

Its purpose? To engage in a constructive dialogue between two parts holding opposing views, but who have mutual respect for each other. With courage, guidance and intelligence, self-confidence and willpower, the transcendent function offers a person “a way of attaining liberation by one’s own efforts and of finding the courage to be oneself”, with the ultimate goal of attaining “realisation, in all its aspects, of the personality originally hidden away in the embryonic germ-plasm; the production and unfolding of the original, potential wholeness.” (Mmmbasically, enlightenment?)

Space Beginning GIF by Lobster Studio

Enter psychedelics

“As any change must begin somewhere, it is the single individual who will undergo it and carry it through. The change must begin with one individual; it might be any one of us. Nobody can afford to look around and to wait for somebody else to do what he is loath to do himself. As nobody knows what he could do, he might be bold enough to ask himself whether by any chance his unconscious might know something helpful, when there is no satisfactory conscious answer anywhere in sight. Man today is painfully aware of the fact that neither his great religions nor his various philosophies seem to provide him with those powerful ideas that would give him the certainty and security he needs in face of the present condition of the world” - Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self

Psychedelics have a knack of breaking us open and showing us profound, undeniable truths that we’d been shying away from. Chi, one of the founders of Truffles Therapy, explains it beautifully: “Our psilocybin experiences urge us to think for ourselves and to question everything we think we know. They reveal how society distracts us from deeper truths. Perhaps for the first time, we admit we lack answers to fundamental questions. Who am I? What are my values? What do I really want? What brings me joy? What is my contribution to the world? Why are cigarettes and alcohol widely available, while magic mushrooms are illegal? When we examine our beliefs, we face the unsettling possibility that our life has been built on falsehoods. Disillusionment leads many to embark on a spiritual search.”

So whether you’ve encountered your shadow, dissolved your ego or even transcended into the unitive consciousness of the mystical experience, it’s likely that your psychedelic journey left you with some pretty big questions regarding the meaning of the insights you discovered. For some, these insights might effortlessly slide in like perfect Tetris blocks into their maps of themselves and the world. But for most of us, it takes a specific kind of work to turn these lessons into something we can work with - that’s integration.

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What is psychedelic integration?

In short, integration is the process of making sense of a psychedelic experience and incorporating the lessons into our daily lives with the aim of becoming more fully ourselves.

Similar to Jung’s transcendental function, integration serves the purpose of bringing the contents of the unconscious that surfaced during the psychedelic trip into ego-consciousness, with the intention of altering it within the context of the person’s individuation process. It can last weeks, months or even years, depending on the type of experience and how well the person is suited to work on it. It’s a constant process of writing and rewriting our own narrative by finding new meanings and allowing them to permeate our world.

Without this active, intentional process, a psychedelic journey remains a weird dream or a funny story to tell at parties (And then Jesus turned up and told me to quit smoking, LOL - anyway, can I bum a cigarette?). But integration isn’t a straightforward process, since everyone is different - which is why it’s often best to work with a psychedelic integration therapist or coach (it me) to get the most out of it. Done well, the integration process looks a lot like psychotherapy, and should leave you with new goals to work on towards flourishing into the beautiful flower that you are.

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Why we need integration

The amount of work involved in integration might come as a surprise to those who maintained the misguided view of psychedelics as “magic bullets”. While an intentional psychedelic session might take you to the root cause of your suffering, it’s up to you to then find ways to heal. And that’s not always easy, as our Western minds and society are not built to support this kind of stuff.

Having spent ten years coming up with clever ways to sell stuff, I know so well how our consumerist, materialistic world can create the illusion of change flowing from the outside-in. We’re sold the idea that unhappiness comes from circumstances, and can be easily fixed with a shiny new car, splashing out on a new wardrobe, getting a “better” spouse, or the latest phone that will capture our fake smiles in even higher resolution. As soon as the new thing starts failing us, we look for an upgrade, avoiding at all costs to look towards the sadness, fear or lack of love we feel within. And when that becomes too much, we look for medication that will numb our symptoms, instead of finding ways to treat the root cause.

“It has often been said that one of the characteristics of the modern world is the disappearance of any meaningful rites of initiation.” - Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation

A big impediment in our integration is our lack of rituals and rites of passage regarding these substances. Indigenous cultures have integrated them into their way of living for thousands of years. That means that they’ve also built a framework for dealing with these experiences and helping both the individual and the community integrate them - it’s how their societies deal with things like illness, political quibbles or spiritual possession. Lacking this social and cultural context, we often travel across the world and briefly immerse ourselves in these cultures hoping to find meaning. But our returns to “the real world” can be even more disorienting than the experiences themselves, as our society barely makes room for such profound transformations.

One of the main reasons this happens is the deep-rooted stigma around psychedelics. In spite of the incredibly convincing evidence coming out of research, these substances remain mostly illegal, making research and treatment extremely costly and time-consuming. Seeking out treatment is mostly limited to clinical trials, which pushes people towards underground guides, which in turn can pose a legal risk for both parties, or legal retreats, if they can afford the huge costs.

This stigma and lack of information means that society still condemns the use of psychedelics, even for self-development (boo), and doesn’t seek to create institutions to support such experiences. Coming out of a transformational experience, it’s likely you’ll face quite a bit of judgement from misinformed friends and family. Your therapist might not be well versed in this world, or might judge some more. With the exception of a few support groups, it’s up to you to understand what you saw and figure out ways to integrate it.

Integrating on your own implies a certain amount of privilege on your part, which you may or may not have. It requires the luxury of putting life and bigger responsibilities on hold to seek out psychedelic literature and learn about quite a few subjects. But if you’re already balancing a career and a household, it’s quite unlikely your kids will accept going without dinner so mummy can understand why she died in her experience.

But, even with privilege, one massive obstacle to integration remains. Our pesky egos make unreliable translators. Threatened by the unconscious material they’re dealing with, the ego can twist insights and resist change in spite of your best efforts. Since all it wants is continuity - for you to stay the same - even the biggest, most life-enhancing insight can begin to feel untrue once your ego convinces you that your old ways are far safer: Yes, maybe loving yourself could be alright, but not-loving yourself sort of works too, and keeps you away from potentially worse heartbreak, so why even try? Self-love is for sad divorcees anyway #livelaughlove.

“The role of psychedelics is often misunderstood. Many feel that having had wonderful experiences, they now have the answers and are somehow changed. And no doubt in many respects they are. But users often overlook the fact that there are usually heavy walls of conditioning and ignorance separating the surface mind from the core of our being. It is a blessing that psychedelics can set aside these barriers and give access to our real Self. But unless one is committed to the changes indicated, old habits of personality can rapidly reestablish themselves.” - Myron Stolaroff

Finding meaning through psychedelic integration

“A spiritual experience induced out of context of the rest of one’s life and history is like a cut flower: beautiful, but with no prepared foundation in which to root and grow, doomed to fade” - Neil Goldsmith, Psychedelic Healing

So why is meaning so important? In LSD - Doorways to the Numinous, Stan Grof points out that “the content of the LSD session is always highly subject and expresses in a condensed symbolic dramatisation the psychophysiological, emotional, intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual problems most relevant at the time of the session.” Sometimes, the problems and lessons are immediately clear: a friendship is toxic, so we can find ways to set boundaries or let go of it in order to pursue healthier relationships.

But other times the lessons will be harder to decipher beyond the pain of a difficult experience. Rosalind Watts, the clinical lead for Imperial’s psychedelic research trials, claims that the mechanisms of finding and making meaning of an experience turn our pain into grief, and then into love. “Without meaning, the pain is pointless” - without understanding the knowledge we’ve gained, we cannot find the necessary insights and courage to rewrite our stories. As Krista Tippett says, “History always repeats itself until we honestly and searchingly know ourselves.”

If meaning is in the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what happened to us, and what our purpose is in this world, then psychedelic integration is our chance to tweak these narratives to get closer to the truth. It’s the hope that, however gruelling our experience, our pain wasn’t for nothing. Through self-inquiry, therapy and practice our psychedelic journeys can become real catalysts for the kind of change we’ve been yearning for, on intellectual, physical, emotional and mental levels. And in changing ourselves, we create ripples of positive change within our close friendships and our communities - as Ram Dass said, “when all is said and done, we’re all just walking each other home”.

“…Psychedelic experience is only a glimpse of genuine mystical insight, but a glimpse which can be matured and deepened by the various ways of meditation in which drugs are no longer necessary or useful. If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen…” - Alan Watts, The Joyous Cosmology

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Dept. of further investigation

Thank you for reading! Please leave any questions or your own experiences with integration in the comments below or by replying to this email. I’d love to hear from you.
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