Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change - by Tao Lin

To me, the world remains a terrible place, worthy of all the negative attributes I’ve called it in the past. But I’m now gratefully convinced it’s also awe-inspiring and excitingly bizarre and complicatedly magical, a place of easily accessible wonder and pervasive, explorable, feelable mystery. I want to explain why.

For reasons examined throughout this book, I’ve gradually realized that sustained, conscious effort is required—or at least strongly self-suggested—for me to not drift toward meaninglessness, depression, disempowering forms of resignation, and bleak ideologies like existentialism. This book is part of my effort.


Despite being extra-rational, he was also optimistic. This surprised me because I associated rational thinking with pessimism, or at least a wan, slightly feigned sort of optimism. McKenna was energetically optimistic. He called himself “a resolute optimist of a complicated sort.” In one talk, he asked if there was “any reason why people of analytical intelligence, who are connected up to the facts of the matter about the state of the world, should hope.” He observed that the conventional wisdom was “basically no,” then explained why, in his view, “yes.”

He went to the gym as “psychedelic training”—to improve his ability to explore the unknown and bring back useful information.

HE DIDN’T BELIEVE ANYTHING McKenna stressed he deliberately didn’t believe anything—even his own theories. “My technique, which I recommend to you, is don’t believe anything,” he said. “If you believe in something, you are automatically precluded from believing its opposite.” Belief was a “self-limiting function,” a “stultifying force.” McKenna’s disbelief was not due to apathy, cynicism, or stubbornness but determination.

HE POINTED ME BACK TO MYSELF McKenna promoted one thing arguably more than psychedelics: the felt presence of immediate experience. He called the body “the nexus of the mystery of life.” While explaining his worldview, he sometimes paused to recommend that I focus on my own experiences, that I empower myself by creating culture based on my highs and plans and fears, my friends and body and history.

I took his talks as nourishment that was synergistically entertaining, that made me mentally and physically smirk, smile, grin, snicker, chuckle, chortle, and laugh while informing me in a non-boring, challenging manner on seemingly everything. Like a friendly, quick-witted, college-less meta-professor, he took the most interesting pieces, the glinting memes, from each subject—geology, physics, molecular biology, harmony and counterpoint—and shared them with me in a concise and original manner.

HE VIEWED IDEAS AS MEMES McKenna defined a meme as “the smallest unit of an idea that still has coherency” and said he was very conscious of creating and spreading them during his talks. Madonna, socialism, yellow sweaters, rainbow-colored dreadlocks, DMT elves, and “the felt presence of immediate experience” were all memes, which were to ideology as genes were to biology.

ALIENATION Instead of a glum, demoralizing, indirectly satisfying sensation, alienation now seemed once again action-oriented and hope-filled and analysis-demanding. It indicated something about my relationship with society. In “The World and Its Double” (1993), when his children were fifteen and twelve, McKenna said: The reason we feel alienated is because the society is infantile, trivial, and stupid. So the cost of sanity in this society is a certain level of alienation. I grapple with this because I’m a parent. And I think anybody who has children, you come to this realization, you know—what’ll it be? Alienated, cynical intellectual? Or slack-jawed, half-wit consumer of the horseshit being handed down from on high? There is not much choice in there, you see. And we all want our children to be well-adjusted; unfortunately, there’s nothing to be well-adjusted to.

The world which we perceive is a tiny fraction of the world which we can perceive, which is a tiny fraction of the perceivable world.
—TERENCE MCKENNA, 1987, Los Angeles


Note-taking seemed misguided and neurotic. Experience was the only usable information—takable from existence in the universe—and it was recorded automatically. My life was notes, etched into the four-dimensional object of the universe. Or was that just my behavior? My thoughts and feelings left no trace here; they went into books and then other minds.

I would leave society—its drugs and language and ideas and habits and opinions and websites—incrementally, as a gradual and evolving process. I would use psychedelics, books, my history, my mind, and my body to continue learning and to fill my unconscious with more of my experiences and the mystery and less of culture and its hierarchies, so that I wouldn’t sink, like in quicksand but without a directionalized struggle, back into the life I’d once wanted—and had felt, surprisingly and gratefully, empowered—to leave.

Without psilocybin, I don’t see the imagination brightly with details while awake. I don’t realize I’m alien-occupying Tao Lin, sob profusely, delete my websites, feel outside time, announce life changes in typo-dominated blocks of text at 6:01 A.M. or any other time, or discard my computer. Psilocybin removed me from the creodes of my habits and provoked me into long-term change. I’m grateful for all these effects, which aren’t all its effects.

McKenna said all psychedelics were similar at low and moderate doses, causing boundary dissolution, increased access to unconscious thoughts and behaviors, compromised ability to repress and ignore memories and problems, and faster and broader and less linear cognition. The effects became idiosyncratic only at high doses. Beyond my experience of 2.5 dried grams is a weirder, less biographical experience, which McKenna said occurred reliably, for a 160-pound person, on 5 dried grams of Stropharia cubensis, which was reclassified in 1951 as Psilocybe cubensis, or other amounts of other psilocybin-containing species, experienced alone in silence and darkness, or, in the headline form McKenna often said, “5 dried grams in silent darkness.” McKenna stressed that people who hadn’t done this, which he called a heroic dose, hadn’t experienced psilocybin’s full spectrum of effects.

The two effects McKenna said occurred on heroic doses:

  • VISIBLE LANGUAGE McKenna said heroic doses could impart the ability to produce language into a shared space where it was viewable in 360 degrees by others on psilocybin or DMT. “The thought that is heard becomes more and more intense until, finally, its intensity is such that, with no transition, one is now beholding it in three-dimensional, visual space,” he said in “New Maps of Hyperspace” (1984). “One commands it. This is very typical of psilocybin.” He theorized humans could evolve this arguably telepathic behavior; telepathy, in his view, wasn’t hearing what others think but seeing what others mean.

  • THE MUSHROOM The other effect of high-dose psilocybin McKenna described also involved language but was unrelated to visible language. It was the invocation, allowing, or triggering of “a voice in the head,” which McKenna called the teaching voice, the Logos, and, most often, “the mushroom.” McKenna didn’t necessarily believe what the mushroom told him; rather, they dialogued.


WHO ARE THEY? McKenna called them tykes, fairies, self-articulating sentences, translinguistic elves, friendly fractal entities, elf legions of hyperspace, meme traders, art collectors, and syntactical homunculi. From my three trips, I’d only gotten as detailed as “faceless, bodiless, genderless abstraction” in describing any entities I’d encountered. From his tens of trips, McKenna formed four theories on who they were, which he presented “without judgment” because he was “not sure.”

  1. Aliens. McKenna said he could imagine aliens that wanted to interact with humans but had ethics preventing them from landing on Earth, thinking, “Let’s analyze these people. Okay—they’re kind of hardheaded rationalists, except they have this phenomenon called ‘getting loaded,’ and when they get loaded, they accept whatever happens to them, so let’s hide inside the load and we’ll talk to them from there, and they’ll never realize that we’re of a different status than pink elephants.”

  2. Entities in a parallel continuum. “Call it fairyland, call it the Western Realm, whatever you like, but you don’t go there in starships.” McKenna called this possibility “friendlier to Pagan notions” and observed that “human folklore in all times and places except Western Europe for the last three hundred years has insisted that these parallel domains of intelligence and organization exist.”

  3. Dead people. McKenna reached this theory “reluctantly”; due in part to spending his adolescence and early adulthood “getting free from Catholicism and its assumptions,” he found it “hair-raising.” His evidence for it included that the entities seemed to love us, care for us, and be more aware of us than we of them.

  4. Fractal shards of himself, in that if one breaks a mirror, each piece reflects an entire, tiny you. This theory was supported by how McKenna-like the entities were—in their zaniness, contagious glee, and obsession with visual language—but was not supported in other ways, like those examined next.

The more time and physical scale, from galaxies to microbes to molecules, I included in my model of the world—and the more I absorbed the work of Price, McKenna, Harrison, and others who viewed deep time and aboriginals and nature with curiosity and enthusiasm, as obvious sources of knowledge—the more complex and, surprisingly, less confusing the world became. In the past, it had seemed impossible to learn accurate information about health and diet; now it increasingly seemed wise to trust aboriginal diets, which had developed and optimized over tens of thousands of generations outside the influence of publicly owned companies, which seemed to be the main influence on what twenty-first-century modern people ate and viewed as healthy. Aboriginal ways with food—the calm result of millions of years of nature-embedded evolution—had not been warped by a century and trillions of dollars’ worth of advertising, marketing, branding, and packaging from thousands of corporations.

The effects of society-wide degeneration included pain, confusion, dark humor, and, it seemed to me, a kind of restlessness. The more suffering that was built into the human body, the deeper human consciousness—squirming and uncomfortable inside malformed bodies—burrowed into the imagination, reaching stranger places and downloading subtler and more complex and grotesque and startling ideas and behaviors and art and lives into the universe. Physical degeneration, which in its current thread began with agriculture at least 12,000 years ago and worsened significantly in the twentieth century with non-organic farming, factory farms, processed food, thousands of synthetic compounds, and depleted soil—the terrestrial source of nutrition—seemed to be one factor that encouraged individuals, through discomfort and dissatisfaction, to invent things, start companies, write novels, cause wars, explore unknowns, theorize transcosmically.

My experiences had shown I wasn’t ready to explore the unknown. Metaphysical exploration seemed like something one could do for a lifetime, passing on knowledge over generations, which was what aboriginals had done. Modern people, like me, in the global culture, seemed handicapped at it, which therefore made it challenging. The activity asked me to be healthier and more patient and self-aware, to have better memory and language skills, to learn, feel, notice, and understand more.


When I saw Being John Malkovich (1999) in college, I enjoyed its deadpan tone and absurd world, in which a portal existed in a building in Manhattan that led to the inside perspective of John Malkovich. Now I felt inside myself in a Being John Malkovich manner, disconnected and trapped. My only role now seemed to be to observe.

Using only plants and fungi that have evolved over millions of years and been selected and used by humans over millennia, I can safely travel to the furthest places humans have gone and stay there 5 or 30 or 120 minutes, during which I can experientially research consciousness, death, time, existence, magic, ecstasy, and the mystery within a tradition older than agriculture.


“Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third-story window,” said McKenna in “Nature Is the Center of the Mandala” (1987). “Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”

They’re “catalysts of intellectual dissent.” They make people question their behavior, other people’s behaviors, and why things are how they are, and they do this while putting one in a state of mind open to change, novelty, and historical revisionism. This makes it difficult, observed McKenna, for societies—even democratic and especially dominator ones—to accept them, much less praise them, and we happen to live in a global dominator society.

McKenna got the terms “partnership” and “dominator” from Riane Eisler, who in The Chalice and the Blade (1987) proposed that beneath the “surface diversity of human culture” are two models of society—not communist/capitalist, matriarchal/patriarchal, religious/secular, or aboriginal/modern, but partnership/dominator. In the dominator model, one gender is ranked over the other in a bias that influences all relationships because it involves “the most fundamental difference in our species.” In the partnership model, diversity, beginning with gender, isn’t equated with inferiority or superiority; instead of ranking, there’s “linking.” Eisler’s terms were deliberately gender-holistic—all humans can, and do, embody dominator values. The problem, she felt, was “not men as a sex” but the dominator model, in which “the Blade is idealized.” In The Chalice and the Blade, which she observed was unlike most studies of society because it considered all of human history, Eisler argued that the dominator model began only around 7,000 years ago.

The past 4,800 years can be viewed as an inconsistent, unpredictable, many-threaded, unguaranteed but achievable recovery—instead of a hopeless continuation of a seemingly always cruel and violent human history, like I mostly suspected before learning all this—from the overexpression of the dominator model, which for 7,000 years has been erasing evidence and memory, across civilizations and continents, of the Goddess religion and its partnership way of life.


Aboriginals lacked the hierarchy-and-material-obsessed, nature-ignoring knowledge generated by millennia of dominator-style civilizations—a knowledge ranging from egregiously wrong to complicatedly confusing to stimulating and useful, like knowing down to atoms how life builds itself—and modern people increasingly lacked the knowledge gained from living in nature for millions of years, but many of them, like Kathleen Harrison, were learning and teaching it.

In the fractal model of recovery that I began developing for personal use in 2013 and continue to ponder and use on myself, change becomes a kind of practice. A graph of fractal recovery from drugs and other problems is somewhat unpredictable in the short-term but stable and directional in the long-term. In fractal recovery, change happens to some degree in waves. Failure is expected and can be viewed partly as resonances of past failures, as unavoidable and useful and even enjoyable. Other strengths of the fractal model of behavior modification include that it has no rules so is optimized for creative involvement, that its main inspiration is nature (the longest surviving known system), and that it allows one to avoid ideology (rules coming from other humans) and so retain individuality even while making an earnest attempt at recovery. In my personalized model of fractal recovery, I’ve used these techniques:

  • Note-taking. I’ve recorded, in notes.rtf, each time I’ve used a substance and the amount used. I’ve regularly studied my notes to learn and remind myself how much—and how—I’ve changed. By documenting life daily and scaling back to months and years to examine the past, I’ve generated momentum and confidence while increasing self-awareness and countering the distorting effects of memory.

  • Busy isolation. Hiding in my room, I’ve refrained from entering situations that might cause anxiety, despair, and tedium that I’d want to ameliorate with the drugs I want to stop using. In my room, I’ve stayed productive and challenged by reading, writing, exercising, experimenting with psychedelics, and drawing extremely detailed mandalas.

  • New worldview. I’ve immersed myself in a worldview almost the opposite of the bleak one I had before. I’ve done this by writing a column on McKenna—who I encountered in 2012 during the most problematic months of my “recovery”—and his ideas in 2014, and then in 2016 a book on my still-increasing interest in psychedelics and nature.

  • New drugs. Instead of quitting all drugs—which still fascinated and excited me with their ability to selectively alter consciousness—I changed drugs. Encouraged by McKenna, who observed that drugs can be allies and that aboriginals have always used a variety of plant-based drugs, I shifted my drug interest from synthetic to natural, new to ancient.

Cannabis, the plant I’ve had the closest relationship with so far in my life, has been the main ally in my recovery. By then, I’d learned that my previous knowledge, absorbed from mainstream culture, on both drugs and psychedelics, had been wrong. And so instead of believing what seemingly everyone, even many who promoted it, said about cannabis—that it made one lazy, careless, paranoid, forgetful, and unproductive—I listened to Terence McKenna, Kathleen Harrison, and my own experiences and experiments with the plant and began to associate it with meticulousness, social interaction, physical activity, calmness, learning, empathy, wonder, creativity, and productivity.

Cannabis has made exercise and stretching reliably engrossing, pleasurable, mentally stimulating, meditative, and a source of knowledge. Doing yoga on baked cannabis, I don’t feel like I’m inside my body straining to push it into new positions, but, often, like I’m two large hands outside of myself, satisfyingly pulling my body into various shapes. Stretching stoned, I’ve realized that flexibility is like strength; in both, you increased the size of a muscle. In flexibility, a muscle became longer; in strength, thicker.

Cannabis transports me outside my sphere of worry—the dreary, unpleasant place where some to most of me normally exists and where, in my tetchiest moments, I feel unable to stop lingering on things I’ve already told myself to stop worrying about. Ingested carefully, before meaningful activities, cannabis can relocate all of me outside the sphere for more than three hours—often so far away I forget it exists. Smoked with strategic control of amount, timing, and purpose, cannabis transports me multiple times a day. Outside, I change my thoughts with surprising ease; instead of being distracted by my own worried face and recursive internal monologue, I see the world with unself-conscious, appreciative eyes.

I’d noticed that existentialism seemed to ignore “deep time”—that life had billions of years of history from which meaning and knowledge could be extracted, understood, and used. Something else I’d noticed about existentialism was that, for me, it had been partly a reaction to Christianity—the model of reality most people in Florida had used—which said to find meaning in the Bible. Existentialism, which said to make my own meaning, seemed more reasonable than Christianity. Similarly, the worldview McKenna had introduced to me (which sought meaning not from one book, oneself, or others but many books and people plus oneself, nature, and the unknown) seemed more reasonable—more curious and exploratory, including a larger context and so ignoring less information—than existentialism.

Cannabis has assuaged and underscored my degeneration. When moderately stoned, sometimes my teeth and gums ache in waves ranging from not unpleasant to mildly distracting and I can feel how my face is apparently always somewhat tensed and squished. When not stoned, parts of my face probably still feel vaguely numb, but over decades I’ve habituated, like others who’ve undergone years of torturous orthodontics to make their mouths presentable despite facial degeneration, to the sensation, absorbing it unknowingly into my personality and worldview.


Tao could move only four of his ten toes. Staring at five toes, he was unable to mentally focus in a manner causing the middle three to individually move, but, partly because sometimes one or two would twiddle a little, he sensed the skill existed. He’d never noticed this inability until recently, and it had seemed strange and interesting. For the first time, he’d sensed a physical inability as a kind of deadness. Six of his toes seemed numb and uncontrollable from disuse. He imagined that parts of the deforested, razed, replaced wilderness of his mind—filled with tens of thousands of hours of TV, video and computer games, public education, pornography, mass media, movies, literary fiction, nightmares, and dreams—must also be partially to fully nonfunctioning, that probably there were mental abilities he’d forgotten or never learned, ones he could discover, revive, nourish, and use.